Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Only in America, Again

In Slate, David Berreby debunks the meme that America is the only nation where a member of an ethnic minority could win the country's highest elected office.

He cites examples from history, like Britain's Jewish Prime Minister Ben Disraeli, and other more contemporary examples, like India's Sonia Gandhi and Kenya's Daniel arap Moi.

In fact, most people who said "Obama could only happen here" probably meant "Obama would never happen in Western Europe," because many Americans don't have a keen grasp of ethnic tensions in Asia, Africa and South America. (I don't say this out of vitriol: even the best school curricula these days don't trace human movement before Europe's Age of Exploration, philosophy before the European Enlightenment, or literature before the Bible. This is changing, but it was the case for many years, and the result is an American public that can't tell the difference between Kikuyu and Kalenjin.)

The Disraeli example is a good one, especially considering that Victoria's reign was primetime colonialism and racism was in full churn. Disraeli didn't try to hide his religion, but then again, he couldn't have.

But the "Great Dialogue" on race was different in Disraeli's time. Just examine modern France: President Nicolas Sarkozy ran against a far-right candidate who wanted to expel all immigrants. (It is a testament to the other French politicians that they resigned power rather than risk this outcome, but why does that surprise us?) The nation recently passed a law against hijab in schools, not the act of a nation at peace with its religious diversity (Although Turkey has similar laws, Muslims aren't a minority there). And of course, France suffered riots as recently as 2005 (which politicians and pundits quickly blamed on young North African Muslims.)

Italy, faced with a renewed influx of Muslims from North Africa, has seen a disquieting rise in neo-Nazist cliques, particularly among its youth. But not just there: far-right factions now rule politics.

Meanwhile, everyone knows by now of the ethnic fighting between Darfur's Arab militias and its non-Arab Fur, Zaghawa and Masalit farmers. And what about the crisis between Rwanda's Hutus and Tutsis, now raging between Congo's fragmented ethnicities?

What about the skin color-based prejudice that might even have helped the Italian-born Sonia Gandhi coast to her 2004 victory in India? (To be fair: Gandhi's Congress party set themselves up as the antithesis to the more right-wing BJP, and that's no doubt the big reason that Indians voted for her.) Nonetheless, just in 2007, author Anita Jain discovered that Indian corporations hire white women just to attend high-profile events.

These nations don't make up the whole world, and neither does the United States. But greater mixing has created greater confusion. The international conversation about race hasn't been static, nor has it followed a steady path towards greater tolerance. When people say "Only in America" what they might mean is, at a time when that conversation has gone downhill in many places, Obama's story is inspirational.

"Only in America" is also miles better than the motto we had before: "Never in America."

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