In the week leading up to the presidential election in the United States, the British media have been ramping up their disapproval of Sarah Palin, their adoration of Barack Obama, and their collective contempt for the American electorate. In the Guardian of October 28, George Monbiot trashes everything he can conjure up and concludes America is a vast wasteland of uneducated nincompoops. (Watch out, George: your long diatribe, which has already attracted the ire even of lefty bloggers, may backfire and cause millions of swing voters to go for McCain, as Ohioans did in 2004 when the Guardian mocked the stupid folks of that crucial state.)
Now in the final hours of Election 2008, London’s mayor, Boris Johnson, has endorsed Barack Obama. There is nothing wrong with this: despite his pukka accent Boris is an American citizen, having been born in New York and never renounced his allegiance to the Star-Spangled Banner. Although he is a Conservative and should show support for his counterpart party, the GOP, he chose to write an impassioned ode to Obama in the Daily Telegraph of October 21. This was followed on by a furious rebuke from the same paper’s Washington correspondent, Toby Harnden, in the same twenty-four-hour cycle. Harnden sees Johnson’s act as “silly” and cumbersome, inasmuch as Johnson had been ringing the praises of Hillary Clinton at the beginning of the primary season.
My complaint, however, is a specific one: I am sick and tired of Britons and Europeans pontificating about “American racism.” It defies belief that nations who plundered vast continents and colonialized the Hottentot are now telling Americans they should shed their shameful past. There is no denying the United States has a legacy of misfortune in the context of the era of slavery and that segregation was a blot on its history, but the impact of African-Americans on every aspect of American culture is something to be celebrated and that has no equal in Europe and Great Britain. Whether one supported Hillary Clinton or Mike Huckabee, or whether one will be voting for John McCain or Barack Obama, the United States has just shown the world it is capable of staging an energetic exercise in democracy that cannot be rivaled anywhere on the planet. Yes, there have been nasty moments aplenty but no blood has been shed. The cheerful faces of blue- and white-collar campaigners across the great nation are a welcome contrast to the ugly scenario now unfolding in Britain over the peregrinations of grim government officials on the yacht of a slimy oligarch whose shenanigans have left him banned by the FBI from entering the U.S.
Mayor Johnson asserts that “the catastrophic and unpopular intervention in Iraq has served in some parts of the world to discredit the very idea of Western democracy.” Well, aside from the fact that the new Iraq is not exactly a “catastrophe,” frankly there are many who do not care a toss if countries who stone women to death or European societies that have yet to boast one black leader disapprove of American policy. Johnson goes on to remind the world that the Republicans have managed to nearly destroy capitalism through the banking crisis. May he be reminded Iceland is in deeper shtuck than any nation in Europe; that wee land of midnight illumination has no “Dubya” to blame, as Boris is wont to call the incumbent commander in chief.
What is truly galling about the mayor’s explanation for his endorsement of Obama is his discourse on the long and anguished relationship between black and white people in the United States. He talks of “centuries of friction, prejudice, tension, hatred.” Yes, there was a lot of this. But has Boris looked at British colonial history? Has he looked at the miserable, hate-filled debacle of May 2005 when George Galloway defeated Oona King, one of a handful of black politicians? I would like to remind Boris Johnson that my mother’s supervisor in 1938 was Harry Jackson at the Department of Public Assistance in Philadelphia. He was black. She was white.
Johnson hits the jackpot when he suggests that there have been few black role models until Obama. African-Americans have been making an impact on every walk of life since the days of the American Revolution. Nowhere in Europe, steeped in its bloody tribal wars, or Britain, waging ever more powerful sway over its empire of “wogs” (this pejorative is still used in polite company I have shared in English parlors), have remarkable individuals like Crispus Attucks, Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, Harriet Tubman, or Martin Luther King arisen to lead their people.
Mayor Boris makes a puzzling observation: he says the election of Obama will see the end of race-based politics. Yes, there ought to be more black, Native American, Asian, and Latino representatives in Congress and the Senate, but it is also true that there have been black leaders in America for decades, long before Britain or Europe ever thought of encouraging its citizens of color to aspire to high office. Thurgood Marshall sat on the Supreme Court long before any man or woman of color broke through the glass ceiling in Europe or the United Kingdom. When the London mayor says that an Obama win will bring Americans one step closer to judging people on their merits and not on the color of their skin, he forgets that the staggering achievements of black entertainers, sports figures, and creative artists have unfolded in a country in which millions of white people have worked tirelessly for equality and for the success of minority groups. My parents risked much to adhere to their views on equality; despite my conservative inclinations there is no doubt my late mother, who fought for desegregation of the military while serving in the United States Army, would be “kvelling” over the Obama candidacy.
Europe has yet to produce a black chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and no Western country has a woman as brilliant as Condoleezza Rice in its foreign ministry. Rev. Jesse Jackson travels the world advising youth and community leaders. Oprah Winfrey is one of the most successful business figures on Earth. Ella Fitzgerald, Eartha Kitt, Ray Charles, Whitney Houston, Dionne Warwick, Leontyne Price, Jessye Norman, and Grace Bumbry rank in the realm of legend, and though all overcame prejudice and humiliating barriers they were and are loved by millions of white Americans who rejoiced in their triumphs, just as millions of white Americans — “rednecks for Obama” in one news segment — in places like Nebraska and Wisconsin have shown their absence of bigotry.
What is most irritating is Johnson’s final swipe: that an Obama win will reestablish America’s claim to be the last, best hope on Earth. Listen, Boris: it is still a place where a young mom can take her little ones to a football or baseball match, sit next to a supporter of the opposing team, eat a hot dog and have fun, and watch black players achieve their best in pride. (In Britain and Europe fans of opposing teams have to sit in separate stands or death will ensue.) Right now I am basking in the joy of my home team, the Philadelphia Phillies, winning the World Series. Huge crowds cheer the black players and white folks hold up banners lauding one of the many black stars: “Ryan Howard for President.” Inasmuch as British and European sport is gripped right now in a period of unprecedented racial hatred and abuse, I suggest Boris Johnson concentrate his efforts on resolving those hideous issues on his home turf and leave America to prosper in its magnificent aspirations, whoever wins on November 4.