BY AMOS JONES
MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA, February 13, 2007 – It was the shot heard ’round the world, 2007-style. The target was U.S. Senator Barack Obama of Illinois, a hot contender for the Democratic nomination for President of the United States. The assailant was Australian Prime Minister John Howard. In a nationally televised interview on Sunday, he delivered his now-famous response to Obama’s presidential campaign and the Senator’s plan to complete an American pullout of combat troops by March 31, 2008.
Howard said, “If I was running al-Qaeda in Iraq, I would put a circle around March 2008 and pray as many times as possible for a victory, not only for Obama, but also for the Democrats.”
Only hours after announcing his candidacy near an Abraham Lincoln shrine in Springfield, Illinois, Obama said that he was flattered that one of President Bush’s close allies had chosen to single him out for attack. Pointing out that the United States has nearly 140,000 soldiers in Iraq compared with about 1,400 Australians in the region, he said of Howard, “So if he is ginned up to fight the good fight in Iraq, I would suggest that he calls up another 20,000 Australians and sends them to Iraq. Otherwise, it’s just a bunch of empty rhetoric.”
The condemnation of the Prime Minister’s unusual foray into American politics has been challenged by left- and right-oriented political figures in the United States and in Australia. The Prime Minister has reaffirmed his remarks in the Parliament and elsewhere. Liberal Mal Washer on Tuesday said his leader had over-stepped the mark. Opposition leader Kevin Rudd launched his first censure motion against Howard and, according to a news analysis in The Age newspaper of Melbourne, “won the debate.”
Why would a sitting Prime Minister attack an American Senator running for President of the United States on a policy position he has not even had time to analyze thoughtfully? Why would he extend the attack to the entire party, which, the Prime Minister himself later said, contains members with widely differing views on the issue? Why would he risk insulting the potential leader of the strongest military ally Australia has, particularly when Howard could have to work with Obama very soon?
Perhaps Prime Minister Howard does not take Obama seriously as a potential President of the United States. He should take the candidate seriously, of course. Everybody in America does.
Obama is a dynamic senator who enjoys sensational support among a range of Americans. He is doing well in the polls and during the 2006 midterm elections was raising millions for Democrats long before he declared his intention to announce his candidacy. He is a brilliant man, a former law professor at the University of Chicago and President of the Harvard Law Review, the world’s most prestigious legal periodical. Americans certainly take him seriously, notwithstanding the questions raised after Obama’s announcement on Saturday but before Howard’s attack on Sunday.
So why would a chief executive of a country a world apart behave so dismissively toward such a contender? Given the strangeness of Howard’s behavior and its cavalier unreasonableness, those of us who have been victimized by racism are entitled to wonder whether Howard proceeded as he did because Obama is known as the black candidate.
I was one of the first political journalists and legal commentators to question Obama’s categorization when he emerged on the national scene in 2004, flatly stating on the editorial page of the New York Amsterdam News in August of that year that if Obama is black, then he is white. In 2005, I developed the analytical and policy problem of his being grouped simply as a black person in a 21-page article presented at the 2005 annual meeting of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History and subsequently published in Volume 31 of the Thurgood Marshall Law Review. There, I pointedly started from the question, “When, how, and why did Obama become black?” and later discussed the policy problems created for descendants of American slaves (like me) when black American demography is clouded by people whose families were not suffering under recent slavery and segregation but who nevertheless historically and presently disproportionately reap the benefits of policies including affirmative action in higher education while also benefiting from the ill-gotten gains of white privilege (through half of their family trees).
Nevertheless, I agree with Obama in his statement to “60 Minutes” correspondent Steve Kroft in an interview unrelated to the Howard strife that aired on Sunday night across the United States on CBS stations: “If you look African-American, you are treated like one.” And from a global point of view, Obama is definitely black.
As they reported Obama’s announced candidacy on Sunday, Australian television journalists were asking their American correspondents whether America was ready for a black president. Regardless of how pessimistic the informed observer may be – I myself rarely hesitate to expose and rebuke racism and its political manifestations in print and in person – the answer is quite obviously yes. Though initially prodded by the provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, white people increasingly vote for highly qualified black people in America, including in the South. The first black elected governor of a state was L. Douglas Wilder, the millionaire lawyer and grandson of slaves who in 1989 won as a Democrat in a conservative Southern state that had housed the capital of the confederacy, Richmond, the city that Wilder currently serves as Mayor. The second black elected governor was Deval Patrick, a Democrat educated at Harvard Law School like Obama who moved onto Beacon Hill in Boston this year in a state the is less than 10 percent black. All three men offered activist-type credentials, which obviously did not turn off enough white people to defeat their candidacies.
Blacks are only 13 percent of the nation’s population, but white Americans have grown accustomed in recent years to accepting and even encouraging black authority. Oprah Winfrey, a self-made billionaire journalist from the South, created and controls “Dr. Phil.” (She also encouraged Senator Obama to run.) Four of America’s largest multinational corporations now have black CEOs. Prestigious college administrations are led by blacks like Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who is former provost of Stanford, and Ruth Simmons, the Harvard Ph.D. in Romance Languages who is the president of Brown University, one of the eight Ivy League institutions. Large, influential newspapers are managed by black Editorial Page Editors, Executive Editors, and even Publishers. The military is one of the best-integrated organizations in America, producing former Secretary of State Colin Powell and many other black generals in a country known for respecting military service. Influential, mainline white denominations including the United Methodist Church and the Protestant Episcopal Church submit willingly to the authority of the black bishops they elect, including many women, and join the other old-guard churches in supporting the full inclusion of their black congregations, including Obama’s own United Church of Christ, of which his 9,000-member Chicago congregation, Trinity, is the largest.
Moreover, when the Rev. Jesse Jackson ran for president in 1988, he, in a little-reported and somewhat counterintuitive twist, swept virtually all-white, rural counties throughout the Appalachian region of the American South because of his support for labor unions, his Baptist ministerial credentials, and his commitment to the concept of a fair go for all people. He also won the Michigan caucuses with 55 percent of the vote. No American state has anything close to a black majority.
Even the Rev. Al Sharpton, a firebrand New York-based activist known for his independence, delivered a prime-time speech that electrified the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston, eliciting more enthusiast
ic applause than any other speaker at the convention, including Obama. If I had reported seven years ago that Sharpton would take a largely white crowd by storm in that manner within four years, the people at my university would have considered me crazy. In fact, after I guided Sharpton through the Emory University campus for possible intervention in a Blackface dispute in the Spring of 2000, the white-run Student Government Association passed a resolution rebuking his mere presence. I would wager that such a resolution would not even be proposed today, even though Sharpton is no different now from the way he was seven years ago.
What has changed in America, the country where until the 1960s blacks were barred from voting in too many states, where blacks were segregated in spite of their superior achievements, where blacks were often not allowed to play college or professional sports with whites, and where today the persons most likely to be targeted for assassination still seem to be white presidents and black leaders? White people have changed — not all white people, but enough white people to move our society in a different direction. Generations of whites now have interacted with and observed blacks of distinction, and it is no longer strange to vote for one. Too many white conservatives to count have awakened, too.
To be sure, Howard’s comments drew a stern reaction from a white Republican Congressman from Texas who is a strong supporter of both the war and President Bush. John Cornyn said, “I would prefer that Mr. Howard stay out of our domestic politics and we will stay out of his domestic politics.”
Again: What on earth caused Howard to lash out that way?
In Australia, black faces in high places are excruciatingly rare. Howard presides over a country where black Aboriginals have been thoroughly marginalized as their life expectancies portend extinction. Black refugees from war-ravaged regions like Somalia and the Sudan do the best that they can in building their new lives here. However, these constant images of subordinated, desperate blacks are bound to have an effect upon people who know no better. In fact, the most recent social science literature discusses findings that discrete changes in the physical and sensory features of an environment can substantially reduce the degree of implicit (subconscious) bias exhibited by those present: that, for example, “the simple step of having an African-American individual in a leadership role in a group setting turns out to have a substantial effect on the level of implicit racial bias exhibited by others in the group,” according to Yale Law Professor Christine Jolls in her recent working paper “Antidiscrimination Law’s Effects on Implicit Bias.” Howard thus cannot be expected to demonstrate the best judgment when the opposition turns black. A narrow life experience necessarily limits what one can imagine, and Howard has made what I will allow was an honest mistake.
The good news for Howard is that it is not too late for him to back off or even apologize. Black Americans are famously forgiving, as was Sharpton when he appeared at the sentencing hearing of the white man who stabbed him, almost to death, in New York City during the 1990s and begged the judge to have mercy on his assailant. For Howard, of course, it would be better to act now than to come calling later; if the keys to the White House are handed over to Obama, Howard’s about-face would be rightly regarded as insincere.
And, if I might borrow the title of the Senator’s second book, I, in the face of challenges such as Howard’s, would encourage persons watching this firestorm to embrace the audacity of hope: if Obama wins next year’s election, perhaps his mere presence as leader of the free world will itself serve as a form of leadership that can inspire people the world over – the vast majority of whom are not white – to achieve, to excel, and to change the world for the better from the highest levels imaginable.
Amos Jones (’06) is a 2006-07 Fulbright Visitor to the Faculty of Law at the University of Melbourne in Australia. Reach him at email@example.com.