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November 12, 2008

Beyond race

Does Obama’s victory mean America finally is ready to embrace its diversity?

A long, long time ago, in the midst of the Democratic primaries, a photo appeared on that most venerable of “conservative news” websites, The Drudge Report, which depicted then-Sen. Barack Hussein Obama wearing traditional Somali nomad garb while vacationing in Kenya, the birthplace of his father. For the ethnically challenged, the photo served as an introduction to the narrative of Obama’s dastardly “otherness,” i.e. if he’s wearin’ a turban instead of a flag pin then he’s obviously a Muslim terrorist from hell who wants to turn my baby into a communist and drink its blood. This narrative, though tacitly introduced by Hillary Clinton, was essentially the one that John McCain and Sarah Palin recycled and expanded to absurd lengths during the death throes of their failed campaign. Yet it is also one that has a resoundingly positive flipside, given the ever-fluid demographics of America.

By the year 2042, the United States will no longer be a predominately Caucasian nation, as only 46 percent of the population will claim non-Hispanic-white on their census forms. More than three decades shy of that fateful year, the fact that we’ve already elected a black communist vampire speaks volumes as to the waning popularity of spooky, divisionary memes of “otherness,” and tells of a divergent story: America’s acceptance of her inherent multiculturalism, wherein Obama’s mixed-race ancestry serves as a sort of electoral shoehorn — because, after all, white Americans had to vote for him too, right?

Though the great punditocracy is already salivating over how best to color this historic victory — are we finally “post-race?” Is Obama the first candidate to appeal to our Jungian collective unconscious? Can a son of Krypton actually mate with an Earth woman from the South Side of Chicago? — we can at least conclude two things:

1. Sharing a name with an ousted and hanged Iraqi dictator and having this fact stressed ad nauseum by Ann Coulter is no longer a political liability in America; and

2. Contrary to the Bradley-effectual navel-gazing of the Hannity/Limbaugh combine, neither is being black.

By electing a non-white president, the vast majority of Americans have effectively reaffirmed a belief in the enduring appeal of a phrase like “give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses,” thusly reigniting a dialogue about the value of a heterogeneous America.

Well before the election, stories in the media had already begun examining Obama’s international appeal. It seemed about the only group of people he didn’t poll well with was hard-right Republicans, and that was only on account of a photo or (most likely) an e-mail suggesting a vote for Obama was, in fact, a vote for “them.” (Ultimately, this so-called “Palin Effect,” like the event horizon on a black hole, completely and utterly swallowed whatever light might’ve penetrated an otherwise open mind.) Whatever the particular phenomena, McCain handily won Kentucky, which shouldn’t be all that surprising. But with the country trending toward a more centrist, multicultural, heterogeneous bent, Kentucky’s homogenous, right-leaning demographic makeup might have to play catch-up in future elections to remain politically relevant.

Yet in Kentucky’s urban areas, which voted for Obama en masse, such is not the case. Louisville alone is one-third African-American, has a higher index of gays and lesbians than the national average, and the city’s population growth is fueled almost exclusively by an influx of immigrants from all over the world — some of whom, oddly enough, come from places called Somalia and dress like our president-elect when he’s visiting Africa.

Like Asha Yusuf, a Somali who immigrated to the United States 14 years ago and chose not to celebrate her 50th birthday last week. “My family wanted to have a party,” she said, “but who wants all the attention?”

Yusuf, along with many of her fellow Somali natives, have set up shop in the International Market, a sprawling, blue-bricked building on the corner of 8th and York streets that used to be a Sears & Roebuck department store. The market offers a variety of services from specialty coffee to an Afro-Asian buffet to an in-house tailor and more rugs than a person could possibly trample in one lifetime.

Seated behind a glass counter and surrounded by her wares — swaths of brightly colored fabrics and shawls — Yusuf waxes on the election.

“It’s good to have a black president. I don’t hate white people, but it’s good to have that change, especially from Bush. And African Americans can no longer use that as an excuse, which is to say, now that an African American is president, they can do anything and be whatever they want to be without having to make an excuse for why they cannot do something.”

From here, Yusuf goes out of her way to make a distinction between Africans and African Americans, citing the former group’s relationship with their colonial occupiers as markedly different than that of their American counterparts’ experience with New World slavery. Shuffling her hands beneath an olive-colored shawl from which her face protrudes via a perfectly oval slit, Yusuf continues:

“For us, as Africans, we don’t have that kind of history, you know? We did not hate the colonial powers who occupied our territories the way that African Americans hated their masters. We do not share that. But I think Obama will be a good leader because it will show other countries and other people that we can choose something different and better. And I don’t care what his color is, as long as he does his job and is a good leader.”

Though Yusuf’s birthplace, the Republic of Somalia, is located on the Horn of Africa northeast from Kenya — roughly 8,500 miles away from 8th and York — her fundamental assumptions about the prerequisites of an American president reflect those of the electorate, as exit polls have indicated Obama vastly outperformed John Kerry in virtually every demographic.

Louisville native Wendell Coleman, an African American shopping for a comforter at the market, shares Yusuf’s beliefs.

“We’ve still got a lot of division, a long way to go, but we’re getting there. When Obama said for all the brothers to pull up their pants, I thought that was great,” Coleman says, laughing. “Young folks wake up, pull up your pants, and represent your president. I love it.”

For Ricardo Mansilla, an executive director of Louisville’s Americana Community Center, which helps recent immigrants attain citizenship status and find a stable footing in the immigrant-heavy South End, Obama’s election shouldn’t be taken lightly.

“I’m from Buenos Aires,” he begins. “And when I was growing up we did not have elections, so in a way, for us the recognition of how the United States can choose its leaders without revolution is something of a novelty. And now we have the possibility of being the leader of the free world again and being for human rights.”

Mansilla, who came to the United States 18 years ago and achieved citizenship in 2000, has voted in every election since. “Every chance I get to vote I put my foot forward and do it,” boasting that he even voted in the primary — for Obama, of course.

As a man who puts in more than 80 hours a week at the community center, he’s been privy to the reactions of people from all over the world; Louisville’s influx of immigrants favors no particular country, as census data shows it is a veritable hodgepodge of Korean, Vietnamese, Eastern European, Cuban, and, in Mansilla’s case, Argentinean.

“Everyone is excited,” he says. “I mean, we are concerned with the economy, the wars, the availability of education for our children, just like everyone else. And with Obama, we all feel that we have more options.”

He also notes that he respects the service of McCain, saying he is an admirable man who unfortunately turned to negative campaigning. “We are one thing, not two,” says Mansilla, who followed the election closely. “Obama had a much more conciliatory note, as when in the debates he would often agree on things he had in common with McCain. But the tone of the McCain campaign reminded me too much of Bush: ‘You have to be on my side or you’re not a good person.’ We can and should be civil in this country.”

Civility, like elections and many things in our current American political landscape, is something of a novelty. There’s an old Somali saying, “Soomaali been ma maahmaah do,” which translates as, “Somalis never say a false proverb.” As America basks in this post-election glimmer of unity, and the people of the world bask along with us, let’s hope the Somalis are right.