Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Europeans and how they talk about Obama, race, and the presidential election

By Konstantin Vössing, Summer Intern at the Kirwan Institute

If Europeans were able to participate in the American presidential election, Barack Obama would be supported by 84 % of the French, 61 out of a 100 Germans, and by five times as many Britons as his opponent. (footnote #1) His European ‘voters’, however, are not necessarily predisposed to support a ‘minority’ candidate in a ‘real’ election at home, when the question about candidate preference is not just hypothetical. Moreover, it is only too evident that Mahgrebin and African immigrants in France, Turks in Germany, as well as Pakistani and Indians in Britain, are grossly underrepresented and excluded from the political arena.

The relative indifference of European media and observers to the issue of race in the debate about the presidential election is indicative of a discourse about systematic disadvantage of ‘minorities’ in Europe that tends to revolve around dividing lines defined by religion or immigrant status. This can be a blessing, because voters in Europe, contrary to voters in the United States, don’t seem to perceive Obama’s skin color as an obstacle to support him. In a broader context, this translates into a colorblindness that can be healthy, both in everyday situations and in political discourse. But the ‘European approach’ can also be a curse. How would those European Obama enthusiasts react, if racially or otherwise excluded groups in their own country pushed more forcefully for greater recognition? Would they even be willing to acknowledge that there is such a thing as race-based exclusion?

This is how Léonora Miano put it, an author, originally from Cameroon, and now native to France, in a recent interview with the New York Times:

“There’s total hypocrisy here. For me it was really strange when I arrived 17 years ago to find people here never used the word race. French universalism, the whole French republican ideal, proposes that if you embrace French values, the French language, French culture, then race doesn’t exist and it won’t matter if you’re black. But of course it does. So we need to have a conversation, and slowly it is coming: not a conversation about guilt or history, but about now.”

Colorblindness is deeply engrained and institutionalized in the French constitutional tradition, and to some extent unique to France. A certain lack of attention to the presence of racial discrimination, however, is a more universal feature of political discourses all across Europe. Like in so many other areas, a transatlantic learning process is necessary. This should be a conversation, however, that works interactively in both directions, and that takes into account both the blessing and the curse inherent in the way in which Europeans approach the issue of race.

(footnote #1) The figure for France comes from a survey conducted by the Pew Center, the German figure is from a survey by the weekly magazine Der Stern, and the value for Britain is noted by the daily newspaper The Guardian.


  1. Bill Clinton was accused of racism over comments he made about Obama in South Carolina.

    Geraldine Ferraro was forced to resign from her position on Hillary's campaign because of alleged racist comments she made.

    But there's a double standard because Barack's stereotypical comments about Blacks' athletic prowess was much, much worse:


  2. This contribution has some good points. Try to have someone of Turkish descent elected chancellor in Germany... The disturbingly funny thing is that liberal yet oblivious people will tell me (I am German) that they have absolutely no hesitation about 'a Turkish chancellor.' Well, that being the problem in thought -wouldn't that exact person have to be German to become German chancellor? In thought, as in practice, there is a great divide between ethnic (read: white) Germans and Germans whose roots (no matter how far removed in time) can be traced to other regions.

    Where this blog is wrong, though, is when the author writes that apparently for Europeans, race isn't a topic regarding the US election. Oh yes, it is. Obama is always the 'black Democratic candidate,' never simply a candidate. His skin complexion is probably the one -and maybe only thing- everyone knows, and the media vastly play on the 'Black versus White' war image. Plus, McCain is chastized as the 'cold knight' (in reference to the Cold War) and since we dislike Bush, McCain is often presented as Bush's mirror image (alas with war experience, which kind of makes it worse in European eyes), so he's automatically bad. Most Germans (maybe Europeans) know that McCain is pro-war, but ask anyone and they probably won't be able to give a detailed statement on Obama's position on that -or on any other topic of either candidate. Put all this together and Europeans feel very anti-racist and peaceful supporting Obama. It's a GOOD thing -for another country...