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Panelists: Obama has global effects

Robert Singer | Friday, March 27, 2009

The election of President Barack Obama has reverberated around the world, shifting social attitudes and even some policies in Jamaica, Tanzania and Brazil, according to this year’s Erskine Peters Fellows who met for a symposium Thursday titled “Change, Hope and Expectation: The Obama Presidency in Global Perspective.”

Hosted by the Department of Africana Studies, the event signaled the culmination of the Erskine A. Peters Dissertation Year, a program carried out in honor of Erskine A. Peters who was one of Notre Dame’s distinguished scholars and a devoted servant to the community.

Denise Challenger, a Peters Fellow and a doctoral candidate at York University in Toronto, spoke about how Obama has changed attitudes for the better in Jamaica.

“There’s a sense that Jamaicans can claim ownership to the presidency of Obama,” she said. “What he represents is the validation of the potential of the black community.”

While doing research in Brazil, Jessica Graham, a Peters Fellow and a doctoral candidate at the University of Chicago, said many people discovered a renewed sense of pride in their black heritage after Obama’s election.

In a recent Brazilian census, only seven percent of Brazilians consider themselves as black, but using objective measures, outside organizations put the country’s black population at 50 percent.

“People who are interested in the black consciousness movement in Brazil will hope that this will help people define themselves as black,” Graham said. “They will find it more appealing to be black.”

Seth Markle, a Peters Fellow and a doctoral candidate at New York University, said the Bush presidency damaged the reputation of the United States in the eyes of many Tanzanians, but Obama’s successful campaign restored their hope in the American electoral process.

“They were engaging in the same way that we were engaging with Obama in the U.S.” he said. “People do see him as their president as well.”

In Brazil, Obama’s election has helped to weaken racial prejudices targeted towards black women, Graham said.

“It is very rare to see a man of his stature with a black woman,” she said. “He presents a pride that you don’t often see in the Brazilian context. Young women are saying, ‘there are going to be little black girls in the White House with hair texture like mine.'”

Challenger noted another example of how individuals have been motivated by Obama’s election – Jamaican author Taniesha Burke wrote a book titled “Raising The Next Barack Obama.”

“She wrote a book on how to raise the next Barack Obama,” Challenger said. “She’s taken the idea of him and written an instruction book on how to raise the next Obama.”

However, as Challenger said foreigners’ admiration of Obama does not always extend to his policies.

“He represents values that go against Jamaican values,” she said. “Homosexuality is a contentious issue. They decided that it is still a crime. The idea that homosexuality is immoral has now entered into the discourse nationwide. Within the Jamaican community, they recognize this complication.”

Moving to the subject of foreign policy, Markle said Obama’s presidency could diminish perceptions of U.S. imperialism.

“I do think [Obama’s presidency] is changing the discussion around imperialism,” he said.

According to Markle, because Obama is the same color as people exploited by American imperialist ventures in the past, the U.S. may begin to shed its reputation as an empire.

Challenger also contested the arguments of social theorists who believe race and gender to be minor factors in Jamaica society compared to class structure.

“Race and gender were the organizing principles of the former slave colony,” she said. “There is still an issue of color. Colorism is really a damaging factor in Jamaica right now.”