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"He looks like us"

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Robin Lustig | 10:44 UK time, Friday, 23 January 2009

I think I was probably witness last Tuesday to one of the biggest, loudest and most enthusiastic gatherings of Obama inauguration-watchers anywhere in the world.

I was in the Boutwell Auditorium in Birmingham, Alabama, with between 5,000 and 6,000 black Alabamans who were there to celebrate the inauguration of a man who - to use the phrase I heard over and over again - "looks like us".

The southern state of Alabama has two main claims to fame: it was, from before the days of the American Civil War, a bastion first of slavery and then of segregation and racism, where blacks weren't regarded as second class citizens, but as non-citizens. And then, in the 1950s and 60s, it became the cradle of the civil rights movement: where Martin Luther King preached non-violence, and where the segregationists made their last stand.

The Boutwell Auditorium itself tells its own story: in 1948, it hosted the States Rights Democratic Convention, at which Southern Democrats - the "Dixiecrats" - broke away from the national party in protest at its commitment to "human rights" over states' rights. And in 1956, the black singer Nat King Cole was attacked on stage by white assailants while performing to a whites-only audience.

It was so very different on Tuesday. Giant TV screens beamed the pictures from Washington as Barack Hussein Obama took the oath of office to become the 44th US President. (No one in Birmingham seemed to mind, by the way, that he got the words slightly muddled.) You know that cliché - "There wasn't a dry eye in the house"? There wasn't.

"It was like being released from a prison," said the veteran civil rights campaigner Gwen Gamble on The World Tonight that night. "We had been in bondage, we had been denied certain rights, and none of us thought this would happen in our lifetime." (If you missed our programme from Alabama, you can still listen to it via the website - and you can also find a link to some pictures from my trip.)

Do you remember when Obama first emerged as a possible Presidential candidate? The pundits wondered whether blacks would really vote for him. After all, his mother was white, his father was Kenyan, and he grew up mainly in Hawaii. He wasn't exactly a "typical" black American. None of that mattered: "he looks like us."

And in any case, he's not just been elected President of black America - he couldn't have won the election if only blacks had supported him. (But note this: in Alabama, only one-tenth of white voters supported him - and whites make up three-quarters of the total state population.)

I met one young white activist who told me that Obama as President is a "deviation", that he is a Marxist, and that America must remain a "European" (ie white) nation. Was he typical of white Alabamans? Perhaps not, but the fact remains that most white southerners did not vote for Obama.

Of course, there is much more to the Obama presidency than the fact that he is black. In the fullness of time he will be judged, to use the words of Martin Luther King, not by the colour of his skin but by the content of his character.

Yet, if you're black -- and if you were born and brought up in the deep South, with its history of segregation and oppression -- to see someone in the White House who looks like you is a very big deal. In the Boutwell Auditorium on Tuesday, I watched as a 10-year-old schoolboy told the crowd: "I am proud of Barack Obama. I am proud that he is an African-American - like me." That's why I saw so many black Alabamans crying as the new President took the oath of office.

They know it won't be easy. They know nothing will change overnight. He's told them that himself. But however longs it takes, and however hard it is, they also know that he will always look like them.


  • 1. At 11:49am on 23 Jan 2009, Isenhorn wrote:


    Your new article goes towards supporting what I posted under #12 in the thread 'On the road in Alabama'.

    Barack Obama is the elected President, but not much has changed in the attitude of the people. 'He looks like us'! Just imagine that coming out of the mouth of a white supremacist referring to a white President!

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  • 2. At 12:44pm on 23 Jan 2009, dceilar wrote:

    I agree Robin.

    The symbolism of Obama's skin colour is very important especially when we take it into it's historical context. I don't think there is a 'typical' African-American in the same way that there's no 'typical' white Americans. I've read many stories about Americans coming from 'mixed' and diverse ethnic heritages.

    I've often been reading comments like: 'only in America could Obama be President'. Which begs the question: could this happen in Europe?

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  • 3. At 1:00pm on 23 Jan 2009, kikidread wrote:

    did you know that Obama is Obama nothing more and nothing less, but my understanding is that presidents really represent powerful people who stay in the background and control things.

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  • 4. At 1:47pm on 23 Jan 2009, kikidread wrote:

    I like to distinguish presidents not on color but whether they are 'creative' or 'destructive' in their actions and motives.

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  • 5. At 2:05pm on 23 Jan 2009, dceilar wrote:

    #4 dread

    Don't all US Presidents fall into the latter - 'destructive'? Let's hope Obama bucks the trend!

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  • 6. At 2:18pm on 23 Jan 2009, kikidread wrote:

    It's time for Obama to grow his locks down to his toe

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  • 7. At 4:20pm on 23 Jan 2009, MarcusAureliusII wrote:

    Mr. Lustig, your posting represents a gross distortion of Alabama and America. Alabama has been a conservative state for the longest time. It is a strong supporter of the military. White Alabamans generally vote Republican. It was part of the Republican Southern strategy for decades. Alabama would have voted Republican almost no matter who ran as a Democrat. Barack Obama had a record as the most liberal Senator in the Senate. His words during the campaign often did not give encouragement to those who supported the military or America's foreign policy. During the campaign Senator Clinton herself said that Barack Obama was not qualified to be the Commander-in-Chief of America's armed forces and Senator Biden agreed with her. (were they lying then or are they lying now?) Fortunately for us all, President Obama's rhetoric is far more in line with mainstream America than candidate Obama's was.

    The selection of a small fringe group of racists does not reflect Alabama or America. While the culture may be slower to change in the deep south than in the rest of the country, it is changing. I've seen this same kind of thing on other BBC blogs, the Editors for example. BBC habitually finds a fringe group or individual whose lunacy either agrees with its own political bias or is so absurd that it makes a convenient straw man to shoot down and presents it as somehow reflective of the American mainstream. This is not journalism, it is propaganda. Taking events, issues, circumstances out of context or perspective is one widely used technique by BBC to do this. It happens all the time and needs to be pointed out at every instance. It is merely one more way BBC lies to its audience. Very bad Mr. Lustig but not at all surprising given where it comes from.

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  • 8. At 8:07pm on 23 Jan 2009, dceilar wrote:

    Marcus, considering you live in NY, USA (or so you claim) you go quite a lot out of your way to listen to Robin and then log on to the BBC website and complain about him.

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  • 9. At 10:08pm on 23 Jan 2009, pciii wrote:

    #7: Is this the same BBC that you criticize elsewhere for:

    Sucking up to Americans?
    Being sponsored by the British Government, who one would of thought would want a good relationship with the US Govt

    Can you give us any reasons why the beeb would want to provide this "propaganda"? As an independent body, what's their motivation?

    Sounds to me that:
    You're jealous that there's no US equivalent of equal size/strength
    Can't accept any criticism, however small, of your own country.

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  • 10. At 10:36pm on 23 Jan 2009, John_from_Hendon wrote:

    #7. MarcusAureliusII

    Your contribution is up to your usual standard!

    If it pains you to read that there are parts of your own society that offend you, then so be it. It pains me to know that there are bigots and extremists with closed minds anywhere in the World, no matter what colour their skin or faith, or of no faith.

    Robin Lustig is just this guy who is reporting and writing about things that seem important to him and may be of interest to you. He has been at it for the best part of nearly forty years I guess. I have read all of his piece that is the apparent cause of your complaint. I think your unease is really with the Obama win and the way that it conflicts with your personal political beliefs an this is what is troubling you.

    You have made it abundantly clear where you stand politically, particularly I recall you being steadfast in denying human rights to non-Americans and seeing the solution to every issue as war. It must shock you to the core that President Obama is willing to talk to 'your' enemies and forbid the use of torture, even of non-Americans!

    But please don't take out your own frustrations out on Robin now that your right wing Republican agenda has been shown to be aberrant and dangerous - if you want to change your country try again in four years time.

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  • 11. At 10:40pm on 23 Jan 2009, MarcusAureliusII wrote:

    celia #8, I live in New Jersey. BBC bombards my airwaves on PBS and NPR. Logging on here is just a matter of a one or two clicks of a mouse.

    crosseyes, where have I ever said BBC sucks...up to America? I think I've been rather consistent in saying that it lies about America invariably bashing it at every possible opportunity. I've also said it is obsessed with America and can hardly seem to focus its attention elsewhere for very long. After America, perhaps Europe is very dull for them by comparison.

    I warned BBC employees in the US last spring and summer that the opportunity to buy a second home or a retirement home in America at what for them were very low prices wouldn't last forever. I told themto strike while the iron was hot. And now with the falling pound, the opportunity has disappeared. While the prices in dollars have remained stable or fallen, the price in pounds is going up. Too bad. That's what happens when you look a gift horse in the mouth. He turns tail and runs away. I'm sure others will come here to buy them.

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  • 12. At 04:26am on 24 Jan 2009, pciii wrote:

    #11, you consistently told us about how all the BBC election correspondents and Mr Webb himself are doing whatever they can to remain in the USA, including singing it's praises.

    So they're obsessed with the US eh? Maybe. But obsession wouldn't explain negative propaganda would it?

    As for your third irrelevant paragraph....yawn, yawn yawn

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  • 13. At 5:13pm on 24 Jan 2009, MarcusAureliusII wrote:

    crosseyes, even you must realize that Webb's stay in America does not depend on the good will of Americans but on satisfying his supervisors that the expense is worth it. By finding new drivel to report or write about on his blog site, he has managed to avoid leaving his assignment covering the White House and going back to the boredom of Bush House. His supervisors like America bashing, it's in their blood. That's why they were hired, it fits BBC's corporate culture.

    Not drivel you say? His latest thread is about Obama not having a bible to take the oath of office a second time when all of America is focused on his economic policies, especially the stimulus package being debated in Congress, and his foreign policy initiatives. As a news journalist, his blog site is at least 3 days behind what's actually going on which in America is an eternity. That may explain why the contributors have gone off in their own direction. His entries are as irrelevant as he is. Fortunately for him, his management is even more clueless than he is.

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  • 14. At 6:35pm on 24 Jan 2009, SteveGNyc wrote:

    I think you have Barack Obama's true importance completely reversed.

    When he is judged, it will be solely by his performance as president.

    Whether he 'looks like me', or 'looks like someone I hate' no longer matters.

    We saw the same thing with John Kennedy's Catholicism. It was important to many people until his term started.

    Yes, his identity group (Irish-Catholic in Kennedy's case, Kenyan-Hawaiian-MidWesterner in Obama's) is very proud he became The President. And why not?

    He is not someone elected on an exclusive Civil Rights platform.

    Barack Obama was elected to rescue America from confusion, economic collapse and Constitutional crisis.

    The fact that America got around to electing a Black citizen to the Presidency 100 years too late is a nice historical footnote, but what will count is his job.

    As I said, it doesn't matter what people in alabama think now. What they think in 8 years does.

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  • 15. At 6:51pm on 24 Jan 2009, StewartonTam wrote:

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the House Rules.

  • 16. At 03:28am on 27 Jan 2009, chronophobe wrote:

    Race doesn't matter in the USA. Heck no. All those neighborhoods you don't dare drive through, that's just lack of policing. And just go ahead and ask any black man you know about the dangers of driving around at night in 'white' neighborhoods. Or just driving around at all.

    Oh, and speaking of policing, have you heard of Oscar Grant? And this happens in Oakland California, not Birmingham Alabama.

    Of course, it could've happened to a white guy. But it didn't.

    And the riots that happened after the shooting? And the fact it took 2 weeks to arrest the "officer." No racial issues here. Being black is no different than being Catholic. Or a Mennonite.

    I think those of us who aren't black have no idea of how much the election of a black man as POTUS means. I take those tears of joy at face value; people want to believe so much that things can get better . . .

    Canadian Pinko

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  • 17. At 5:31pm on 27 Jan 2009, SteveGNyc wrote:

    If you search for in the corners for extremes in the 305 million person U.S. you will surely find them.

    Things have changed a great deal over the past 40 years. Perhaps distance is causing folks in Britain and elsewhere to retreat to outdated stereotypes.

    Racial relations between groups in the U.S. as NOT like they are in Britain or Europe.

    I believe the U.S. has shed much of its old animus and is closer to a harmonious society than it has been in a century.

    I short, think twice before you project your old beliefs and present problems onto us. You will be doing yourself a disservice.

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  • 18. At 2:45pm on 30 Jan 2009, Ed Iglehart wrote:

    SteveG (14),


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