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America Doesn't Need 'Rebranding'

A Commentary By Froma Harrop

Thursday, November 13, 2008

I'm delighted that Barack Obama has been elected president and that foreigners are delighted, too. But I never viewed eliciting delight from non-Americans a reason for choosing a president, including one of color.

No other people so fervently seek the admiration of others as do Americans. On the left, that tendency is obvious. There has been much talk of Obama "rebranding" America as a liberal land of race-blind equality. It is remarkable how many Americans, young people especially, yearn for an "openness seal of approval" from people in countries whose records on racial integration is worse than ours.

The right suffers its own hypersensitivity, though that gets manifested in different ways. If a Frenchman claims that the cheese is better in his country -- much less goes off on a general anti-American tear -- the super-patriots launch a carpet-bombing attack on everything that has happened in his country for the last 20 centuries.

The left tries to please, and the right tries to hit back. Either way, it's an overreaction. America is a land of ideas, not ethnicity. That's its strength.

If a change in how America deals with the world is what voters wanted, then a president of any color could have done it. On this score, John McCain would have been a vast improvement over the current White House occupant.

Obama's job is to offer a sage foreign policy -- not heartwarming proof that Americans will elect a biracial leader with a Muslim middle name.

Europeans do like to critique the United States, and Obama's election has them responding with awe. That's fine, but their acclaim is based on an outdated notion of American race relations.

There's no denying the tragedy of slavery and Jim Crow -- and their legacy is yet to dissolve. But Obama didn't have to happen for the world to see African-American advancement unmatched in any other majority-white country. The United States has had black generals, senators, secretaries of state, governors and CEOs of Fortune 500 companies.

Yet you have French political analyst Dominique Moisi quoted in The New York Times thusly: "In this election, the Americans not only chose a president but also their identity." In addition to trying to figure out what he meant, you wonder where he's been.

Last year, the Southern conservatives of Louisiana elected Bobby Jindal, the dark-skinned son of Punjabi Indian immigrants, as their governor. (His real first name is Piyush.) Jindal is now a star of the Republican Party and listed as a possible presidential contender in 2012. In Britain, native-born people of Jindal's coloration are still regarded as something out of the national mainstream. Here, if they speak with an American accent, they're in.

The reporter who quoted Moisi also didn't quite get it. He writes that Germany's 2.9 million ethnic Turks "have little political representation ... with just five members of the 613-seat Bundestag."

The truth is every German citizen of Turkish background has a representative, just not necessarily one of his or her own ethnicity. If the people of Nebraska's Douglas County felt "representation" meant electing someone who looked like them, they wouldn't have just given Obama a majority (and the first Nebraska electoral vote to go to a Democrat since 1964). The county, which includes Omaha, is 83 percent white.

The objective of multiracial, multi-ethnic societies shouldn't be electing people of color, gender or ethnicity in proportion to their numbers in the general population. It should be fostering a civic culture in which someone of talent and discipline and good ideas can be elected regardless of those DNA.

That is how I choose to regard the election of Barack Obama. The best candidate won because he was the best candidate.

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