Obama’s Victory and Race: What Does It Mean To Canadians?

November 5, 2008.

The election of Barack Obama as U.S. President is not only historic; it is a tectonic shift in symbolism and the way most of humanity has come to see power, equality and their place in the world. Obama has transcended nationhood to capture the imagination and hopes of peoples around the globe. In a sense, he has become – if even, for the honeymoon phase – everybody’s President, from Kenya to Indonesia. Many of my generation never thought we’d live to see the day a person of colour ascend to the Presidency of the United States.

Last Saturday, Canada’s Globe and Mail News headline read, “Has America Overcome?” Forty-five years ago, Reverend King spoke, “I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the Promised Land.” He famously authored, “Why We Can’t Wait.” Much progress has been made and yet many of the hopes and promises of the Civil Rights era remained unfulfilled. Some may have even lost the faith of a more perfect union and of racial equality. For many of the masses around the world, from Nairobi to Damascus, this is an enormous political achievement in the history of the world. This is poignantly so for those whose histories included slavery and colonialism by the European West. We will all remember where we were on the evening of November 4, 2008.

What does this mean to us as Canadians? There is a tendency to be self-righteous and morally superior to Americans on the questions of race in this country – given the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow in the USA. We have no basis for such self-satisfaction and comfort. In modern context, our racism may not always be as overt or brazen – but, it exists. It is hidden and insidious.

The institutions and power structure of this country remain remarkably white and, for the most part, male. They do not reflect the true and ever-changing face of Canada. This amounts to exclusion and inequality for many Canadians. The newly appointed federal cabinet is a minimalist effort to include a wider mosaic of faces – it is hardly representative. It is the same with provincial governments, civil service, boardrooms, judiciary and administrative bodies from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation to Port Authorities. The causes are often systemic and inadvertent – but not always. Denial too is a part of the discourse. To allege discrimination becomes a social infraction. Victims are often disparaged and discredited – as malcontents, lacking merit or as an excess of political correctness – because it is an offence against our myth of equality. The occasional “diversity” appointments, while welcome, are held up with an exaggerated belief of our openness – but such occurrences are inadequate. They do not reflect the quality and numbers held by women and persons of colour in this society.

Barack Obama when confronted with the Reverend Wright controversy addressed the American people in a now famous speech last March that, “race is an issue that this nation cannot afford to ignore right now.” Can the same not be said of us? Is equality a concept Canadians truly understand and respect? Are we prepared to appoint a person of colour to the highest court in the land or elect a woman or person of colour as a Premier or Prime Minister? The republic to the south is once again ahead of us on these important questions.

Inequality is real and has potential to cause social conflict. It is a drag on Canada’s capacity for progress and productivity. Exclusion reflects injustice and the immorality of inequality. It is a breach of promise not just to our highest ideals – we are a multiracial and multiethnic democracy constitutionally committed to equality and non-discrimination. We Canadians have no right to feel complacency or superiority to Americans – as we are often prone to do – even, as we share in the pride of history made by the republic to the south.

A wise person once wrote if we do not ask the questions; we will cease to find the answers. We have come a long way from the legal and practiced discrimination of the past. And yet, we have our own blind spots and inequality. There remain unfortunate gaps between rhetoric and reality.

Commentary by Balwinder William Sundhu: lawyer and former judge, member of Kellogg College and in the Masters Programme in International Human Rights Law at the University of Oxford.