Environment: Obama’s elusive race —Saleem H Ali
We are still living in a world where race is more likely to be co-opted as a superficial tool of political posturing rather than a quality for substantive change
Several years ago, I was the faculty advisor for a young student who came from New York City and was phenotypically African-American. For a largely “white” state like Vermont, students of colour are of particular trophy value as universities nationwide strive to be considered more egalitarian in their admissions decisions. Perhaps he was assigned to my advising list since I was also from a “diverse” background and hence might be able to provide some mentoring that might not otherwise be provided by faculty from the dominant demographic. I greatly enjoyed my interactions with this student who was inquisitive, diligent and always very respectful.
Most of our conversations during advising sessions over the four years that he studied at the university were about classes and his interest in doing environmental research overseas, particularly on the Caribbean island of Dominica, which has a large Afro-Caribbean population. In his last semester at the university, the student came into an advising session and informed me that he was planning a trip to the Middle East and wanted to seek my guidance about programmes. I naively assumed, that he probably wanted to visit Egypt because of its tourist attractions and maybe to reconnect with his African roots.
Much to my amazement, the student’s destination of interest was Israel and he said to me quizzically: “didn’t you know I am Jewish?” While I was aware that there is a small African Jewish community from Ethiopia, known as “Falashas” or “Bete Israel”, I least expected to have an African-American student from Manhattan who was devoutly Jewish and was in fact the president of Hillel, the Jewish student organisation on campus! We had a good conversation after this revelation about how environmental issues could perhaps bring Jews and Muslims closer together in their search for peace.
Too often we read so much into an individual’s background because of their appearance without really knowing much about them. I was reminded of this student, as I heard Senator Barack Obama give a long speech before the largest pro-Israel lobbying group after winning the Democratic presidential nomination on June 4.
Senator Obama is clearly not Jewish but is trying his best to show that he is a firm friend of Israel because of the “baggage” of his name. In many ways he is facing the same phenotypic challenge that my student faced because he is still perceived as a person of colour with some Muslim parental connection. His declared faith is Christianity but even there he is automatically perceived as belonging to “black church” organisations.
Mr Obama is a deft politician and he has been trying to distance himself from Islam. What is more astonishing is that he even resigned from his “black church” this week in order to placate any concerns about his authenticity as a “mainstream” candidate. Some objectionable sermons by reverends at the church were enough for the media to stir the pot of guilt by association, and it was too risky for him to let such distractions create further doubts about his candidacy.
He had to give a long speech before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and resurrect a narrative about his uncle who fought in World War II and liberated a concentration camp. This is clearly a venerable lineage and one worth mentioning. Yet such narratives are exactly what one may expect and want from a conventional candidate who follows the paths of influence.
Why are we not hearing more about his paternal family connections, his voyage of self-discovery to Africa and his interests in Muslim culture as well? The answer is fairly obvious — people talk about change but they don’t really want it in substance. The irony then for the voting public is that the very novelty of his candidacy has to be quite deliberately diluted because of the pressure to conform.
The world at large is in awe of America’s ability to have an African-American reach this point and indeed this is a major accomplishment for the country’s democratic institutions. I too am proud to be an American in this context. Yet, let us not be too easily impressed with just having a person of colour on the podium.
As we have observed from the current administration’s record on minority appointments such as Condoleezza Rice, Alberto Gonzales and Elaine Chao, there is often little added value of “diversity” if individuals are not willing to exercise their abilities in this regard. We are still living in a world where race is more likely to be co-opted as a superficial tool of political posturing rather than a quality for substantive change. Pakistani-Americans and others who may initially be struck with empathy in having one of their “own” at the election should consider matters with some trepidation.
I look forward to be proven wrong in my cynicism about Mr Obama — yet the events of this week, have given me little reason for optimism.
Dr Saleem H Ali is associate dean for graduate education at the University of Vermont’s Rubenstein School of Environment and on the adjunct faculty of Brown University’s Watson Institute for International Studies. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org