The Obama syndrome: challenge of Black leadership

By Patrick Hunter Thursday August 28 2014 in Opinion
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Within the European and North American contexts of holding political office, we have very few examples to choose from where persons of African descent have held the highest office. President Barack Obama happens to be the first. So, President Obama gets the distinction of bearing the name for this particular syndrome.


A definition of this syndrome would go something like this: “The leader of a northern developed country whose race or ethnicity (and possible religion) is not in the majority (White) group and, although his or her responsibility stages him or her to govern for the whole nation, fails to implement policies and programs that targets and benefits his or her group primarily.”


Regardless of the level of support and respect that one may still have for Obama, one has to admit that after nearly six years of governing, he has not initiated any policy or program that specifically focuses on improving the state of being of African descendants in the United States.


This is not to suggest that he has not addressed some of the economic, and perhaps some political, concerns of African-Americans. I still believe that his efforts to improve health care should impact African-Americans significantly. I may be wrong.


The results of his efforts, during the economic crisis, to stimulate the economies of hard-hit places were hardly reflected on television and other media as they affected African-Americans. Those interviewed were largely White with their new-found hardships.


In his speech to the Democratic National Convention that propelled him to the national stage, Obama’s rhetorical exhortation that there is no Black America or White America, just one America, was largely the philosophical bent he brought to the presidency. And, to be fair, in a perfect world, that is how it should be. But we are not in a perfect world, are we?


But how does the Obama syndrome translate to Canada, the United Kingdom and other countries in Europe? To do that, we have to step down a level, to the cabinet level.


I am encouraged, and indeed thrilled that in Canada more racialized persons are taking the bold step to place their names in candidacy for political office. I am particularly thrilled that more Black candidates are stepping forward. Now we have to start electing more.


This is where the rubber, as it were, hits the road. To what extent do Black elected officials have the opportunity to bring forward policies and programs that focus on the improvement of the conditions of Blacks?


At the two upper levels of the political spectrum, the federal and provincial, the party’s caucus essentially dictates the position of the party’s role – what programs they support. Most of that support is in accordance with the party’s policy ideals, approved at conventions. How those policies are implemented are supposed to be determined by caucus. More likely, especially if it is the governing party, the priorities and the implementation are largely determined by the leader and special advisors. None of the latter is elected. Cabinet gets to approve a proposed option from a controlled schedule of options.


So, getting Black-focused initiatives through to the table is, to say the least, quite a challenge. Bear in mind that the response or potential response of the voting public is a determining factor.


The Rae Government of the early 1990s, perhaps more than any other government, federal, provincial or municipal, implemented one of the most concentrated series of programs targeted at the Black community. This followed the June 1992 “Dear Bob” letter; a report on the state of racism against Blacks in Ontario. The Employment Equity Act was passed, the Race Relations Directorate was upgraded to the Ontario Anti-Racism Secretariat, an anti-racism division was created in the Education ministry, and the Commission on Racism in the Justice System was launched, just to name a few.


The Rae Government was defeated after serving one term. Some will argue that the defeat was largely based on Rae’s response to the economic crisis his government faced. I still believe that the attention he gave to the Black community was a key reason. The two-term majority government of the Mike Harris Progressive Conservatives that followed is an indicator.


It should be noted that the Liberal Party, which was in opposition to the Rae government at the time, selected the only Black sitting member of its caucus to be the lead critic on employment equity, human rights and race relations.


So, the Obama syndrome is real. Favoritism towards one’s community takes a certain amount of guts to defy the naysayers. The recent resignation of a Muslim minister in the UK government because of her government’s position on the Gaza situation stands as a good example. Unable to convince her government to adopt different language, she was forced to take the only dignified option possible.


Political realities – or more appropriately, courage – therefore make it virtually impossible to target the concerns of the Black community with focused programs. It takes on a different texture when the proponent is Black. It is always framed within the context of “special interests” and therefore branded as a bad thing. Remember Premier Dalton McGuinty’s reaction to Black-focused schools? He was totally against them. /Twitter: @pghntr

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