A new man in the White House rarely brings people out to party in Britain. So the unprecedented scenes of celebration last week in the capital, on the day of Barack Obama’s inauguration as President, must mean something. Kurt Barling reports..
Alistair Cook and Rob Neil were part of a group of seven Londoners (7goWest!) all from different ethnic backgrounds who made what they described as a pilgrimage to Washington.
"If there's one overwhelming sentiment Londoners seem to express it is that idea that suddenly the world looks like a different place for minorities"Kurt Barling
Many hundreds of Londoners went just to be a witness to a historic inauguration. There will only be a first black President once. That aspect of the Obama-fest had a similar feel to 1989 when young people from all over Europe descended on Berlin when the Wall came down.
For them, it was a moment to dare to hope.
I’ve wracked my brain for the past week to remember a moment when so many black and asian people were so deliriously happy because one politician promises a new tone to politics.
Nelson Mandela came close, but that was different, that was justice for a long incarcerated icon. Barack Obama has clearly touched the parts that no other foreign politician is able to reach.
At a star-studded event at the Inter-Continental Hotel in Park Lane on the Tuesday night in question, over 500 of Britain’s Black British highest achievers gathered to sing his praises. TV stars, sportsmen and women, teachers, police officers, actors across a whole range of disciplines.
Floella Benjamin of BBC Children’s programmes fame and now a great advocate for diversity told me she felt it was like a weight being lifted from a generation who could now see that anything was possible for their children irrespective of their ethnicity.
If there is one overwhelming sentiment that Londoners seem to express it is that idea that suddenly the world looks like a different place for minorities. On a practical level that simply can’t be true. But what is more plausible is that the self-perception individuals have of what they and their children can strive for can now begin to change.
Talking to Kwame Kwei-Armah the actor and playwright he was a bit blunter. He described it as a great and proud Black moment. For him it was a day when lots of ghosts could start to be laid to rest for the African Diaspora. The legacy of slavery runs deep in the consciousness of people of Afro-Caribbean origin.
Interestingly Floella Benjamin challenged his interpretation by saying it may be a day to look backwards and understand how much had been sacrificed so an African-American could become President, but it was as important to look forward and celebrate the fact that President Obama is a man of mixed heritage.
Floella argues, being influenced by different traditions across the old racial divide, will help President Obama steer societies like the United States and Britain beyond the existing race paradigm in political debate. Of course for that to happen we need to invent a new language. We can only hope that that evolves quickly in the Obama era.
Thirteen years ago I reported on the launch of the organisation Operation Black Vote (OBV). At the time a lot of people raised eyebrows over the group of young idealists who wanted to encourage voter registration amongst minorities and use the momentum to challenge public bodies to change their attitudes towards the recruitment of people of colour.
President Obama sworn in
Over the past decade OBV has encouraged and cajoled the Magistrates court service, local councils, Members of Parliament and now the Parole Board amongst others to make their institutions more accessible to non-traditional recruits. They have helped transform the landscape of opportunity in public service. Simon Wooley its Head says that the Obama election promises to nurture an “Obama Generation”.
Go into any court nowadays in the capital and they are transformed places. The faces of the people that administer justice are no longer almost exclusively white as they were just 10 years ago. Whilst those on the bench are still predominantly white, other court officials are decidedly a diverse bunch.
Wooley believes that Obama’s election will encourage minorities here in Britain to come out of the civic shadows. By having a more diverse administration, the argument goes, the more informed will be the shaping and delivery of public policy.
And that’s an idea that has certainly caught the imagination of many in local government across the 32 London Boroughs. Talking to the leader of Kensington and Chelsea Council last week, a Conservative, I was struck by how optimistic Merrick Cockell was that Obama would inspire a more diverse group of Londoners to seek elective office.
In fact London Councils, the body that represents all 32 London Councils in their collective dealings with Central Government, have themselves launched a pilot project to effectively headhunt people with the right technical skills to serve as councillors.
As Cockell put it people with real world experience coming into public service in the name of politics. It’s a delicate task, fraught with political risk, but it’s a sign that modern government recognises it needs to attract stronger candidates.
New York-born Boris Johnson
Even Mayor Boris is a huge fan. At a City Hall reception last week I joked with him about the Stars and Stripes that had been raised above the London Mayor’s HQ to mark Obama’s arrival in the Oval Office. A Mayoral decision I was informed.
Mayor Boris was, of course, born in New York himself so feels a great affinity to that side of the pond. He felt the inauguration was an inspirational moment in particular for Londoners to think the unthinkable. Boris is certain there will soon be an elected Mayor for London who is black. Obviously they’ll have to wait a few years yet!
Naturally there is a danger with all this hype. Obama is the President of the United States, not the President of minorities. One of his biggest challenges will be to navigate the tricky waters of minority expectation in his own country.
In Britain of course he has absolutely no jurisdiction even if he oozes moral authority, but there will be disappointments if he fails to change the way in which minorities can engage with mainstream institutions; both as users and employees.
Obama also reminds us that personal heritage is not one dimensional. He is mixed-race. That gives him a different insight into the way White and Black people experience the world. Many Black people believe that finally there is someone at the summit who sees the world through the same prism as them. That of course is yet to be proven.
But in the final analysis that may be his true gift; helping people to figure out a way to finally step beyond the race paradigm in thinking about politics. Not quite a Brave New World but potentially one with a different tone.
Alistair and Rob are both civil servants and they returned from Washington with a belief that Britain can build on America’s lead. Part of a “yes we can” generation now in a position to make a difference.