Only in America? Europe, not so much

Keith Richburg, writing in today’s Observer, reflects on why America is leading Europe in terms of race relations based on his experiences as a journalist throughout the world -

[…] it’s difficult, if not impossible, to imagine a Barack Obama emerging in Europe soon.

One reason is that Europeans for the most part do not talk about race and race relations as openly as we do. In America, we wallow in it. We self-analyse and form committees, workshops and seminars to talk about it. There are countless organisations and associations dedicated to racial issues. Bookshops stack shelves talking about our racial history and problems. We take measurements of pretty much everything, from black student school test scores to minority living standards.

France, to take one example, is on the other extreme. For a story on the state of minorities in France, I once asked for the statistics on how many blacks were on each political party list and it was like dragging a dead cat into the room and tossing it on the table. Race is simply not openly discussed.

What’s more, many Europeans can’t even bring themselves to call their minority residents what they are – citizens. They are still often referred to as ‘immigrants’ or ‘outsiders’, even if they were born in the country, speak no other language, know no other home.

A European Obama seems unlikely to emerge soon because of the parliamentary systems in place, in which a newcomer to politics has first to find his way on to a party list and work his or her way up through the ranks. In Obama’s case, this newcomer leapfrogged far more experienced and better-known candidates – think Hillary Clinton – to take his case directly to voters in primary states.

A year ago, no one here would have predicted that a black candidate would become the nominee of a major party and have a more than realistic chance of winning the White House on 4 November. And it’s a testament to Obama’s considerable skill that he has largely managed to make his race an afterthought. America is on the verge of something historic and it almost seems anticlimactic.

But black Americans are still pinching themselves, still not quite able to believe what has been achieved. And all Americans should pause from the heated political rhetoric and reflect on the sense of accomplishment, win or lose, that his candidacy represents – an affirmation of that American ideal.

I think back to my father, who suffered terrible racism in the south, still believing for his son: ‘You can be anything you want to be.’ That means any little boy can even dream of being President. And that really is only in America.

The parliamentary systems in Europe, with the party vetting of potential candidates that that implies, mean that there is more room for calculations based on entrenched perspectives, and less room for surprises. There are benefits of this – in terms of stability and the conservation of ‘useful’ and ‘good’ traditions – but the downside, in terms of flexibility, and responsiveness and openess to change, should now be more obvious.

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