Inside Story

Race to the top

Britain’s reaction to Obama’s win says a lot about the fears and hopes of America’s ally, writes Frank Bongiorno in London

Frank Bongiorno 25 November 2008 1584 words

IN LONDON, as elsewhere, it’s been time for Obama. There’s an inevitability about comparisons with the election of John F. Kennedy, that early-1960s transatlantic “dream-hero,” and I’ve been reminded of a comment found by the historian, Jennifer Clark, in a condolence letter written by an Australian to Jacqueline Kennedy in 1963: Kennedy was an American but he was “our president too.” Everyone wants their piece of Obama, the British no less than those Kenyans, Indonesians, Hawaiians and Midwesterners who managed to celebrate his victory as the triumph of a local lad made good. There’s even a song called There’s No One As Irish As Barack Obama doing the rounds of email networks.

Just as various cohorts of American voters – blacks, white liberals, immigrants, the young, women, indebted home-owners, hard-pressed small business-owners, disillusioned Republicans, fed-up Independents – each found in Obama a worthy tablet on which to inscribe their fears, hopes and ambitions, so now the world beyond America tries to make sense of it all. Each country does so in terms that express its own national pathology – or at least that of its leader. So Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi praised Obama for his suntan and, having been roundly condemned by many of his own countrymen for this idiocy, has now added that he’s equally envious of Naomi Campbell’s. Meanwhile, Private Eye proclaimed an “Historic Victory,” its cover depicting Obama shaking Gordon Brown by the hand and congratulating him on his recent by-election win in Scotland. It was a nice comment on the stark difference between the rather jaded British electorate and the excitement across Atlantic.

Like many people in this country, I stayed up late to watch it all on the BBC – British coverage began around 11 pm our time – and I only went to bed after I had been assured by the BBC’s “experts” that it was all over bar the shouting. Several television channels ran all-night shows, and the volume and quality of media coverage of the election, going all the way back to the primary campaigns, seemed to me greater here than what I would have expected in Australia. It all served as a reminder that New York is just a few hours and £100 away, and the kind of place to which Londoners can slip over for a mini-break or shopping trip (at least before the credit crunch condemned them to a quiet time at home with the Scrabble board).

Yet there were also plenty of reminders on election night that we were in Britain and they were somewhere else. At the outset, there was the kindergarten explanation of the voting system. British viewers were assured that, in presidential elections, the Americans had no use for either constituencies or returning officers. “It’s a miserable way of doing it, compared with the British way,” remarked one commentator – only half-jokingly, I thought. One British correspondent used the phrase Bush “Government” rather than “Administration.” Another managed to confuse Idaho with Indiana (too many “I”s, I guess); still another pronounced the “s” at the end of Arkansas, before correcting himself. As a colonial, I rather enjoyed it, considering how much sport this lot have made over the years with foreigners who mispronounce Beauchamp and Douglas-Home.

There was much debate in the US concerning whether this was an election about race, and I gained the distinct impression that it was somehow disreputable to suggest it might be. But in the afterglow of Obama’s victory it’s certainly been all about race for those British observers who initiated a predictable controversy over whether their country could ever elect a black prime minister. I wonder whether the Americans asked themselves whether they were sufficiently enlightened to elect a women after Mrs Thatcher’s victory in 1979? Or if, after her fall, the British debated whether they were sufficiently enlightened to do so again? In any case, the controversy has elicited a range of views from black Britons: from a few who believe it could happen some time soon, to some who think it really doesn’t matter so long as the battle against injustice continues to find its warriors, to others who’ve come up with intricate institutional explanations of why a Westminster system of parliamentary government couldn’t produce anything quite like the Obama phenomenon, to those who say, point blank, that it couldn’t happen here because Britain is a more racist society than the United States. One thirty-something black market-trader thought it might happen one day “but we need time to find more literates.” Presumably he had in mind more people like Baroness Scotland, currently attorney-general, and the first black woman to become a QC.

There’s been much talk of black role models. Indeed, Obama’s victory occurred just a few days after Lewis Hamilton, a young British man, became the first black driver to win the Formula One Grand Prix. The two events were linked in the British media; two black men, one on each side of the Atlantic, had pursued their dreams, worked hard to cultivate their talents, and risen to the very top in a highly competitive field. For Hamilton, the victory was especially sweet as he had, earlier in the year, been subjected to racism in Barcelona – spectators with blacked-up faces announcing themselves as Hamilton’s family – and, just before the last race on the season, he received racist abuse on a Spanish website. Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone thought the Barcelona incident was just a bit of harmless fun; but not Hamilton, who was perhaps better qualified to recognise racism when he saw it. Then, a few days after the presidential election, the veteran journalist, Jeremy Paxman, was criticised for a BBC interview in which he asked with a young rapper, Dizzee Rascal, whether he felt “British” (He did, and thought he might like to run for prime minister down the track). One critic replied: “Why does a leading BBC news journalist deem it necessary to ask a black British person ‘do you feel yourself to be British’? Would he have asked Barack Obama ‘do you feel yourself to be American[?],’ of course not.”

The larger issues sitting underneath most of this kind of discussion concern the meaning of Britishness, and the nature and extent of racism in British society. The recent bicentenary of the end of the slave trade did provide an occasion for some people over here to connect the problem of contemporary racism with British history, but it was perhaps asking for too great a stretch of the historical imagination for most to see in the election of a black president an incident that might also be considered part of their own history as an empire, notwithstanding the Union Jack in the corner of the Hawaiian State Flag and Obama’s Kenyan father. In Britain, despite the celebration of Black History month each October, discussion of race seems to be understood mainly in the context of the contemporary quest for social inclusion and cohesion.

Perhaps it’s inevitable that in a post-imperial society based on the principles of multiculturalism and racial equality there should also be a degree of amnesia about the experience of once having ruled over peoples with dark skins as part of the “White Man’s Burden.” Or perhaps the Little Englandism in the way race is handled in this country confirms the views of the historian, Bernard Porter, who doubts whether empire ever really mattered that much to most British people at home. Even Enoch Powell’s “Rivers of Blood” speech, recalled this year on its fortieth anniversary, seems to belong to another universe rather than just another era. So possibly does the 1981 Brixton riot – but not, perhaps, the killing of black teenager Stephen Lawrence in 1993. Brixton and the Lawrence murder placed racism in the police force in the spotlight, and that’s not an issue which has gone away. Nor has the British National Party.

Meanwhile, the urge to categorise still seems especially strong in Britain, even if the purpose of such information gathering is now to include and assist rather than the reverse. I’ve often been required to fill out forms in which I am invited to select an identity from a wide range of ethnic groups. I’ve learned that I’m “White (Other).” And it’s easy enough to see how this works in everyday life. I was recently in a King’s Cross shop with my father-in-law, who was visiting from Australia. There was a man serving behind the counter who was probably Indian. He was being abused by a black man, who was telling the shopkeeper in no uncertain terms that he didn’t know anything about being black because he was Asian. To the untutored Australians it was all rather confusing and might have been more amusing if it had been a bit less menacing, but I expect it all made perfect sense to those involved. They’ve probably also had to fill out forms from time to time. •