Obama and the prism of prejudice

‘He’s not actually going to win, right?’ That question, and particularly its source, illuminates the spectrum of stereotyping

About the author:Irish journalist Niall Stanage writes about American politics for the New York Observer, as well as commentaries for the Sunday Business Post (Ireland) and The Guardian (England).

I was recently asked to write a story about Barack Obama for a newspaper in my native Ireland. I was surprised at the readiness with which the paper’s editors were prepared to grant prominence to a candidate who, I knew, was then barely on the radar of the general public. The article was to be the cover story of the newspaper’s magazine.

Shortly after it was published, I was visiting Ireland and met socially with the magazine’s editor. After making a few positive noises about Obama, she got to the point.

“He’s not actually going to win, right?”

I replied that Hillary Clinton was a tough rival for the Democratic Party’s nomination but that Obama was indeed a serious contender.

“Yeah, but they’re not going to elect a black guy, are they?” she responded.

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The remark, with its built-in assumptions about the depth and breadth of American racism, seemed to encapsulate at least two phenomena. On one hand, it was yet another small, casual illustration of the way in which the image of the U.S. has plummeted in recent years, even in relatively friendly countries. On the other, it was evidence of the negative caricatures about America that have become firmly embedded in liberal European circles.

The success of Obama’s candidacy, if it continues, may force those who indulge in knee-jerk anti-Americanism to confront and acknowledge aspects of U.S. society that do not fit the gloomy stereotypes they seek to propagate.

“The United States of Abu Ghraib, of Iraq, of hubris, simply wouldn’t have a black first family. It would not have a man whose name is Barack Hussein Obama as its president,” said Jonathan Freedland, a columnist with the left-of-center Guardian. “So if that were to happen, the cognitive dissonance there would force people to reassess their ideas about America.”

Yet the tendency to see his candidacy through the prism of his race means that a defeat for him would, in all likelihood, be taken as confirmation of America’s irredeemably racist nature.

The positivity about Obama on the other side of the Atlantic—if not on this side, too—seems focused upon his racial background and the aura of freshness that surrounds him. Some see dangers in that. UK columnist Gary Younge recently questioned how much change Mr. Obama’s candidacy really offered, writing: “He has the role of an inadequate and ineffective balm on the long-running sore that is race in America. His victory would symbolize a great deal and change very little.”

matthew williams/Zuma Press

Such views surely exaggerate the gulf between symbolism and substance. Sometimes, the symbolism is the substance—or at least part of it. In Obama’s case, the “visuals” of his election would have profound consequences—in relation to how America is seen (in the mirror and by others) and especially, what assumptions are made about the United States’ fundamental fairness as a society.