The Obama Phenomenon: Beyond The Factor Of Race

THE election of Barak Obama as the 44th President of the United States  last week was bound to be one of the greatest events in contemporary world politics.

However, there is need to look beyond the symbolism that threatens to submerge and disguise the man himself, his unique personality, rare intellect and immeasurable charisma.
Also, it is important to make a distinction between the extent to which the Obama   phenomenon will  have helped  towards  the restoration  of   the  dignity  of  the  African  after  centuries of domination, slavery, colonialism  and racism, on the one  hand, and, on the other, the fact that Barack Obama is essentially an American who,  as president, will work  and operate within the broad   parameters of a  policy framework that underpins the US  as a super power.
This was an election which attracted a record turnout of 66% or 131 million votes, with Barak Obama romping comfortably home with 349 electoral votes to 161 for John McCain and a popular vote of 52% to 47% for his rival. And what about the enormous crowds that graced his rallies, not to mention the 125 000 that thronged the victory scene in Chicago on the night of the election results.
We should not forget also the 200 000 plus persons that greeted him in Berlin, a few months earlier as Barak Obama toured Europe, a poignant reminder then that here was a man with such universal appeal that his victory last week would predictably provoke world-wide appeal and approval.
Indeed, it is understandable that Africa and people of African origin would want to identify with the victory of one of their colour. But we have to remember that this victory is not Africa’s alone nor the African-American factor which will constitute perhaps no more than 5-7% of the total number of voters that propelled Barak Obama to the White House.
So, while we acknowledge the racial significance in the emergence of Barak Obama as the first black President of the USA, there are more profound factors here, beyond race and the symbolism that accompanies it.
Barak Obama is not the typical African-American, a term I have great difficulty in accepting given that the American political lexicon does not double-barrel citizens of other races  or origins. (I mean, have you ever heard George W Bush being described as “English-American”, in a country in which almost everyone –– with the exception of the so-called “native Americans” –– is a descendant of invaders, immigrants and African slaves?) Obama is not a descendant of African slaves brought to the Americas as part of the Trans Atlantic slave trade three centuries ago. And was this not the reason why such civil rights leaders like Jesse Jackson were murmuring to the effect that Barak Obama was not really one of their own?
Similarly, while it is true that Barak Obama was born of a white mother and a black father, he was brought up by his white maternal grandmother –– an added complication for the race ideology in which persons of mixed race are usually viewed as the result of illicit sexual relations between white males and black females. And while quite natural that any grandmother would love her grandchild, it is a fact that boggles the racial psyche of many a white American and defies easy classification of Barak Obama beyond the broad racial brush, “African-American”.
Understandably, African –– and Kenyans in particular –– went wild with joy at Obama’s victory in the US poll. For that reason, Thursday last week  was declared a public holiday in Kenya. But what chance would Obama have had as a presidential candidate in the land of his paternal origin? He will have been dismissed and perhaps, even disqualified for a variety of reasons:    For  being  as Luo as Raila Odinga; half American and, therefore, not truly African;  not black enough; “half caste”; brown!
Obama is intelligent and educated enough to have confronted successfully and transcended the problem of identity in a world still so race conscious. His autobiography, Dreams of My Father, is, according to my 17 year-old son for whom I bought the book as a birthday present, an account that goes far beyond the issue of race and portrays a strong personality, self-confident, and with enormous leadership potential.
As a technocrat in his own right and one who had learnt and experienced the art of organisation as a community worker, Obama understood from the outset the requirements for a successful election campaign. He did not fall prey to the temptations of cheap electioneering and transient patronage; he surrounded himself with an able team, chosen on the basis of merit and relevant experience. Above all, he capitalised on his immense charisma and converted this Obama magic to his advantage with impeccable skill and almost faultless political agility, honesty and integrity. And if he does succeed in the White House, it will be due to his technocratic and political skill, plus an able team that he will no doubt put together.
So, here is a poignant irony in that, just as the world is lauding the emergence of the first black person to the White House of super power USA, there is little or nothing about race that underpins Obama’s victory.
This is not part of the fable about race versus race, black vs white, or vice versa. Needless to say, Obama did not win on a race ticket; his victory represents, in a very historic and meaningful way, the recession of race as a political factor, in a world in which the younger generation –– who constitute 80% of our population –– are moving fast beyond race, to issues so much more fundamental, demanding a vision that matches the higher levels
of education, skills and the advantage of the new information highway.
I have to confess, like most if not all those of my age and older should, that such developments as have been responsible for the emergence of the likes of Barak Obama, have actually overtaken us, leaving us almost forlorn and irrelevant, burdened by the present and with a blinkered view of what tomorrow should yield.
This is why we see the Obama factor in racial terms; and this explains why the likes of Jesse Jackson wept as they did with joy and incredulity at Obama’s victory.
Indeed, while the concept of race is so alien to Africans and their culture, African leaders in particular have allowed a European and Anglo-Saxon pre-occupation to cloud their own vision, distracted from the recognition and acknowledgement that the emergence of the likes of Obama is more than a symbol of the victories they have won in their struggle against European expansionism, slavery and colonialism. Yes, we can!
Yes, there is nothing racial about either Barak Obama or Lewis Hamilton (another hero about whom Africans and people of African origin were so wild with joy  on November 2    when the young man won  the Formula  One  Championship). Both have won in their own right, as persons of exceptional talent, on the back of the enormous support on the part of all those human beings –– black and white –– who recognise them for what they are, as politician and sportsman respectively.
The 21st century promises to be a period during which race and racism will gradually recede into the dustbin of history, on the strength of the progress and tenacity that Africans have demonstrated in all fields of endeavour, against a history that has been so unkind to the dark race, including the many political and socio-economic obstacles and impediments. The arrival of Barak Obama in particular should remind us all that Africans can emerge and triumph as equal members of the human race.
 But only if Africa itself is able to transcend its current problems, through a younger and more visionary leadership, one that is alive to the demands and challenges of the twenty first century. Rightly so, as my 12-year-old son said in response to Barak Obama’s victory last  week: “This victory   is a  monumental one and will inspire the future leaders of Africa.”
By Dr Mandaza : prominent academic and publisher.