Sunday, November 24, 2013

Is President Obama being subjected to racist attacks?
M. Serajul Islam
  Oprah Winfrey, the African-American celebrity, said recently in an interview to the BBC that President Barack Obama is the “victim of racism”. “There is a level of disrespect for the office that occurs,” said Oprah in her interview “and that occurs in some cases and maybe even in many cases because he’s African American. There’s no question about that, and it’s the kind of thing that nobody ever says but everybody is thinking it.” In particular, the African-American celebrity picked up the cry of “liar” from Republican Congressman Joe Wilson while the President was addressing the Congress in 2009.

America, the great land of democracy, has historically demonstrated prejudices where “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” though enshrined in the Constitution as “inalienable rights” have not been the same among the various races and ethnic groups that inhabit the country. In this context, the journey of the Blacks or African-Americans as they are politely referred to has been an epic one. When the US Constitution was scribed the African-Americans were slaves. It took the country a hundred years and a civil war to free them from slavery and yet another 100 years for them to have what the Whites always had for granted, equality under the law with the civil rights movement led by the likes of Martin Luther King in the 1960s.

Nevertheless, the African-Americans, who constitute 12.6 percent of the country’s population, still do not feel that they have been granted by their fellow Whites (72.4 percent of the population) respect and fair treatment. Therefore when Barack Obama emerged on the national scene of US politics as one likely to take the White House, it was an extremely unusual event. To make matters even more surprising, in the post 9/11 US when Muslims were on the dock to most Americans, Barack Obama had a Muslim middle name, being the son of a Kenyan Muslim married to an American white woman. Yet Barack Obama rose in the Democratic Party like a meteor. He came to national limelight after his brilliant performance at the National Convention of the Democratic Party in 2004 that nominated Senator John Kerry as the presidential candidate.

That speech was so exciting that he instantly attracted the attention of Americans. His colour was overlooked and people saw in him as a charismatic leader who could reach any heights. He was compared with one of the all-time stars in the list of US Presidents, John F Kennedy whose 50th death anniversary falls this week. In fact, what was wondrous was Barack Obama made it to the White House quicker than what it took JFK who went into the presidential race in 1960 riding on the back of being a war hero, a Congressman/Senator with significant standing and a family background that was the equivalent of royalty in the US context.

Therefore the question that naturally arises is what then had motivated the people in the 2008 presidential election to vote for Barack Obama by overlooking his colour and his otherwise short career as a politician at the national level? In an analysis to find reasons why Barack Obama was able to overcome what was apparently significant obstacles to the White House, the contribution of eight years of President Bush are undoubtedly of the essence. Had George W Bush not turned his country and the world upside down with his war on terror that resulted in US contributing US$ 2.2 trillions in Iraq alone that helped push the country into its worst economic depression in recent memory with 4486 lives of US men and women in uniform lost in Iraq and 2287 in Afghanistan in the process, USA would have had to wait much longer to send to the White House its first black President.

It was the impact of the two wars and Barack Obama’s promise of change that attracted Americans to vote him to office in the 2008 elections. Once there, America realised that an African-American had slipped past them. Two developments in post-Obama presidency brought out the racist nature of attacks on President Obama. First, was the emergence of the Tea Party phenomenon in the ranks of the Republican Party; and, second, the decision of President Obama, not just to remain satisfied at being the first Black President but to try and do something to keep his name in history through his healthcare reform. In the House, the Tea Party politicians now numbering 70 who have taken the President’s healthcare reform or the Affordable Care Act also known as Obamacare as the object of their attacks on the President that smacks racism that Oprah Winfrey has underlined in her BBC address.

The dislike for President Obama was seen at its worst with the recent shutdown of the US federal government. The Tea Party group in Congress refused to fund the federal government to put pressure upon the President to abandon Obamacare and/or compromise on it according to their terms. These legislators refused to consider that the ACA was law (passed in 2010 before the Democrats lost their majority in the House) and they had no right to obstruct it. Nevertheless, they went ahead and shut down the federal government for 16 days and stopped short of embarrassing the United States defaulting for the first time ever in meeting its overseas financial obligations by refusing it the right to borrow, a routine request from the White House. For 16 nerve wracking days, the country and the world watched a political drama in which the country lost US$ 24 billions and achieved nothing except that it brought to surface the racial content of the dislike of the conservatives, in particular the Tea Party group, for President Obama that Oprah Winfrey has underlined by her bold interview to the BBC.

Despite America being the land of promise and the bastion of democracy, the darker side of the American saga keeps on surfacing on the US national scene regularly. That dark side was brought to the surface in the recent case, George Zimmermann versus Trayvon Martin. In that case, an all-white jury found George Zimmermann not guilty when all evidence proved that he killed an unarmed Black teenager Trayvon Martin purely on racial ground. Americans watched the case with rapt attention that brought African-Americans together on their perception that as a race; they are subjected to racial discrimination, the rule of law notwithstanding. Prominent American Blacks, including President Obama, and average blacks spoke in the media in the same vein about what it meant being a black in America. The common denominator of these concerns was that when a black moves among the whites, white Americans could not help looking over their shoulders with suspicion. Black American males are routinely the victims of racial profiling by the law enforcing agencies.

Oprah Winfrey however acceded that the United States has come a long way since the times of “Scottsboro Boys” when 9 young blacks in Scottsboro, Alabama were accused and tried for rape on fabricated charges, racially motivated and one that has become an example of miscarriage of justice in US judicial history. That happened in 1931. “It would be foolish to not recognise that we have evolved in that we’re not still facing the same kind of terrorism against black people en masse as was displayed with the Scottsboro boys. It’s gotten better.” Nevertheless, America has still to go some way in order to fulfil the commitment that “Life, Liberty and pursuit of Happiness” means the same for blacks as it does for whites. Oprah Winfrey feels that the prejudice against African-Americans will wither off but only when generations “who were born and bred and marinated in it, in that prejudice and racism,” and dead and gone. That future for America is round the corner.

The writer is a retired career Ambassador.
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