“Will Americans vote for a black man?” I think I’ve been asked this question by foreigners of various origins a dozen times—or maybe three dozen times—since the U.S. presidential campaign began for real in January. Now we have the answer: Yes, Americans will vote for a black man. Which means that it is now time to turn this rather offensive question around the other way: Will foreigners accept a black American president?
I realize that this, too, may seem like a rather offensive question, particularly if one believes everything that one reads in the newspapers. Germany, to take one random example, is at the moment experiencing something like its own version of Obamamania. The press appears to see the Democratic candidate as what a Der Spiegel journalist calls “a cross between John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr.“; the German foreign minister has already been heard chanting, “Yes, we can!“; and Obama T-shirts can be spotted in the hipper quarters of Berlin. This sort of enthusiasm isn’t unique to Germany, either: British, French, and even Polish newspapers splashed Obama and his candidacy on their front pages last week, most accompanied by laudatory articles that solemnly proclaimed that “America has changed.”
But has Europe changed? And have Asia and the Middle East changed? I hate to put it so crudely, but—European newspaper reporting to the contrary—racism is not a phenomenon unique to the United States. The situation of ethnic minorities in Europe and Asia is completely different from that of the United States, and in many ways our societies aren’t comparable: Most nonwhite inhabitants of European societies are recent immigrants, not descendants of former slaves, and the particular situation of, say, the black Christian population in Arab-dominated Sudan is unique.
Nevertheless, it is safe to say that there is a distinct dearth of nonwhite politicians in Europe. The Indian caste system has an element of skin-color discrimination built into it. Arab societies have their own history of trading in black slaves, and the existence of anti-black-African prejudice in the Arab world is no secret. Periodically, African students in Moscow get beaten up on the streets.
Though certainly more severe in those countries that have large nonwhite populations, unreflective racism exists even in parts of the world that have barely any darker-skinned or nonnative inhabitants at all. Japan has been singled out by the United Nations for its racist treatment of foreigners. And while some of the stares that black Americans say they get on the street in Warsaw or Prague reflect simple curiosity, some, I’m told, also contain an element of hostility.
President Obama wouldn’t have to worry too much about angry stares from people at bus stops, of course, and it is fair to assume that prejudices harbored by the odd foreign leader will vanish in the presence of the U.S. president. In the rosiest scenario, an Obama presidency—or just an Obama candidacy—might even force a broader international discussion of race. Last year, Andrew Sullivan wrote eloquently about the way in which Obama’s face, just by itself, will help change America’s image around the world.
By the same token, candidate Obama—merely by being who he is and looking like what he looks like—could begin to change European, Arab, and Asian attitudes about race. Millions of Africans would surely treat a U.S. president of African descent as “their” president, just for a start.
But in the meantime, do not be surprised if there is some backlash. A hint of what might be hiding behind those enthusiastic headlines emerged last week in Obamamanic Germany, where Die Tageszeitung, a Berlin newspaper, put a photograph of the White House and the headline “Uncle Barack’s Cabin” on its front page. The editors argued that their intention was satirical, but since the same newspaper has also referred to the current U.S. secretary of state as “Uncle Tom’s Rice,” it is clear that they understood the nastiness of the “Uncle Tom” connotation perfectly well.
Listen carefully, too, when foreigners start worrying about Obama’s lack of foreign-policy experience. Though this is a perfectly legitimate concern, I do think I occasionally catch a racist undertone in this kind of conversation. “How could a black man possibly understand European/Middle Eastern/South Asian politics?” is what my interlocutors sometimes, in fact, seem to be saying.
The correct response, of course, is that plenty of white men don’t understand European/Middle Eastern/South Asian politics, either. But not everyone, everywhere, is going to understand that. Foreign coverage of U.S. politics always reveals a lot about foreign countries, but never more so than in this election season.