There is a joke that if Barack Obama loses the general election in the Fall he should run for President of Brazil, given the fascination with his campaign there, as in many other nations around the world.
US racial structures are often the subject of discussion in the public sphere in a surprising number of places around the world; traditionally in Brazil, the discussion had to do with the visible aspects of racism in the US (lynching, Jim Crow, ghettoes) to reaffirm that Brazil’s supposedly fluid system of racial categories is less racist and more democratic. More recently it has had to do with affirmative action currently tentatively implemented in some universities: in absence of US style racism, the argument goes, Brazil should not need US-style solutions. But now the discussion, not always polite, has turned indignant. “How can it be that a more racist country like the United States can have a Black presidential candidate?”
Obama sounds post-racial (and post-political); the language of racial injury is seldom part of Obama’s lexicon, and there is little in his pronouncements about redress of racial injustice. Nonetheless, his very presence on the national stage in the United States seems to speak to the successes of US-style multiculturalism and affirmative policies (strategies that are racially explicit but work within structures) to publics around the world, despite his actual biography.
What has traveled is the unlikely, unbelievable, image of a Black Man running for president. This holds up an uncomfortable mirror to societies whose self-narratives are about merit and that deny the very possibility of identity politics and affirmative policies. How many sons of African or Arab immigrants have run for elected office in France? Or for that matter, how many Afro-Cubans hold prominent posts in the Cuban government? Or even more starkly, how many Black Lawyers are there in Brazil?
Certainly some of the social significance of Obama’s campaign and eventual presidency has to do with these types of global implications. The point for progressives is to exploit the tensions they generate, without falling into a celebration of the end of US racism or becoming trapped by the limits of post-racial post-politics.