Barack Obama supporters often argue that a black U.S. president, such as Obama, will be welcomed by the world as a sign of American progress and inclusiveness, a signal to all nations that the U.S. is open to the talents and contributions of diverse peoples. But the idea that the rest of the world shares Americans’ faith in redemption through diversity is itself an unwitting exercise in American solipsism. The perception of the globe as a collection of integrated, post-racial states just speaks to Americans’ capacity to see the entire world as a reflection of our values and standards.
Is it an accident that the rest of the Western world has yet to produce anything approaching a black head of state? In France, for example, only one of approximately 600 members of Parliament is a member of a racial minority. England fares slightly better with fifteen out of 645. Germany’s largest minority, ethnic Turks, make up ten percent of the population, yet they hold less than one percent of the seats in Parliament. Spain’s number are worse than any of the above. Italy is poised to appoint as deputy prime minister a man from the racist Northern League party, who once said that France had “sacrificed its identity by fielding [in the World Cup] niggers, Muslims and communists.”
As you read this, Europe grows less tolerant still, with far-right nationalists making their way to higher and higher office. Still, Europe is a hippie musical compared to Asia and Africa, where ethnic and religious segregation is not only institutional, but fatal. Moving east to west: There are frequent, sometimes deadly, clashes between Hui Muslims and Han Chinese. Throughout the Arab world, racism against blacks is rampant, and in Mauritania pockets of Arab-on-black chattel slavery still exist. Then backtrack a little to the Levant. In 2006, when Condoleezza Rice was on a diplomatic mission to the Middle East, the daily Palestinian Authority periodical, Al Hayat Al Jadida consistently referred to her in racist terms and ran a cartoon of the Secretary of State pregnant with a monkey.
Yet Jimmy Carter, who’s made the Palestinian cause his pet project, insists that, in the eyes of the world, Barack Obama “will bring to the presidency a brand new picture of what the White House and Washington and the United States ought to be.” And he’s not alone. The refrain is constant.
With Obama’s nomination a lock, there’s been increasing discussion of what his Presidency might produce. Time and again, conversation comes back to this question of a black president and America’s image abroad. Yet, no one can name a single country that isn’t ages behind the U.S. in terms of diversity and integration. The notion that there’s a soft and cuddly world just waiting for America to catch up is not “global consciousness” but the very opposite: it is an American fantasy born of prosperity and isolation. If neoconservatives are criticized for their arrogance in assuming the universality of American ideals, how will Obama supporters of this stripe answer similar charges?