Barack Obama, race, and the US presidency: looking northward from Chile.
The US was not the only country in the world that anxiously awaited for Barack Obama to be sworn in as the 44th president of the United States
El Mercurio "Challenges, strength and commitment of President Barack Obama" Jan 21, 2008
yesterday. The rest of the world looked on with anticipation as well.
That the world has not been very sympathetic to the problems of the US in the past 8 years is jarringly clear to anyone who lives outside the US. Both the 9-11 attacks and the loss of so many of young men and women to what is seen as a self-serving yet senseless war are often approached less with horror than with a “well, what did you expect” kind of attitude. And the fact that the US has fallen upon such dire economic times is seen–and understandably so–from the viewpoint of the way it affects one’s own economic situation (and it does). And then there’s race.
Most Chileans–indeed, I suspect most of the world–see the US as an extremely racist country, in large part because we air our dirty laundry in public. We see it as news and believe in making problems visible as a way of getting them into the open so they can be dealt with. But the message we send abroad is interpreted quite differently.
People from other countries–and my experience is primarily with Chileans–view it as just the tip of the iceberg… They wonder, “if that’s what the US says publically, imagine what must things REALLY be like.” Rodney King is a case in point. His name is well-known and is readily used as evidence of our racism. I’m certainly not denying racism, but it burns me when the argument is used to point the finger at us without making an attempt to understand the complexities behind the situation or stopping to take a look at their own uneasy race and class issues.
The fact that the US has elected its first black president has given the world pause and Chile’s “everyman” is amazed and generally pleased. It’s turning their “you are racist” argument around. What they don’t seem to get however, is that I–and I’m sure many of my compatriots–did not vote for a black man. I voted for the person who showed the most promise for getting the country out of the disaster the former president et.al., have gotten it into. Gender and the skin color were not my issues at the ballot box. The fact that Barak Obama is black is secondary to his intelligence, strength, commitment, and outstanding common sense. Those are the qualities I look for in a president. Sure, for many people race may well have been the reason that topped their list, but he could never have been elected on race alone. The man is our hope for a better future. And from everything I’ve seen to date, I’m looking forward to an interesting, challenging, and hopefully successful 4 and then 8 years ahead.