October 23, 2008 / 2:15 PM / 10 years ago

Black Europeans pin political hopes on Obama

ROME (Reuters) - Many black Europeans say victory for Barack Obama in the U.S. election might set an example that could help remedy their under-representation in European politics.

US Democratic presidential nominee Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) speaks at a campaign rally in Richmond, Virginia, October 22, 2008. REUTERS/Jim Young

But they emphasize that the U.S. Democrat inspires a massive following in Europe through his ideas and charisma, not just because of his color.

“He is the first black to achieve what he is achieving but that would not be sufficient to follow him,” said Patrick Lozes, head of France’s Representative Council of Black Associations. “Nobody would have supported him just because he is black.”

“I hope Obama wins because of his performance, not because he’s black,” agreed Innocent Ekhorutumwek, a 26-year-old Nigerian street vendor in Rome.

With less than two weeks to the November 4 election, Obama has a solid lead over Republican John McCain in many polls, cheering fans in Europe whom he wowed during a visit in July.

Some, like Michael Eboda, CEO of a British media consultancy and former editor of black newspaper New Nation, wonder whether “when it comes down to it, white Americans who probably don’t know any black people will let one run the country.”

The 47-year-old Illinois senator with a Kenyan father and white American mother has support well beyond black communities.

Not only Democrat sympathizers but conservatives too have welcomed the boost Obama has given to black people, underlining the historic symbolism of a black man contesting the leadership of the world’s most powerful nation.

“The fact that he is black adds an extra level to it,” Eboda told Reuters by telephone from London.

“His father is African and this link is special to me,” said Oumar Diallo, a sociologist of Guinean ancestry in Berlin.


But an Obama win would highlight how far Europe lags behind America in the representation of black people. Only a handful of people of African origin sit on Europe’s national assemblies.

Chuka Umunna, a 30-year-old candidate for Britain’s ruling Labour Party and a lawyer of Nigerian, English and Irish ancestry, has been compared to Obama in the media — which he finds “flattering.”

If elected, “I would be the only person of West African descent in the House of Commons apart from one Conservative MP. In the European context, I don’t think that would be surprising,” he told Reuters.

“The under-representation of black people, in particular in the British parliament, is woefully bad.” There are several British parliamentarians of Asian origin.

Lozes said only one of 555 members of the lower house for mainland France was black. No senators, three out of 36,000 mayors, no top military officers and no French ambassadors are black.

“You need to keep in mind that there are almost 5 million black people among France’s 63 million inhabitants,” he said. Most of France’s non-white population is from Arab north Africa or sub-Saharan Africa.

Eboda, who has compiled a list of “Britain’s 100 Most Influential Black People,” said there were only two black CEOs in British blue-chip companies. People of Asian origin are much better represented in business.

Lozes said Obama in the White House would encourage European leaders to take “affirmative action” about black people’s access to the top echelons of public life, and would boost black people’s views of their own possibilities.

“Minorities will see it is possible, self-inhibition will decrease and people who were not trying anything because of discrimination will feel they can succeed,” Lozes told Reuters.

“This could mean a great injection of hope for the black diaspora in Europe,” said Italy’s sole black parliamentarian Jean Leonard Touadi, who moved to the country from Brazzaville in 1979.

Speaking in a country where the government has been accused of racism and there have been attacks on African immigrants, Touadi said that even if Obama loses, “he has already won.”

“Even if he doesn’t get into the White House, it is a very beautiful symbolic victory in the sense that he has shown the way forward and there is no going back,” Touadi told Reuters.

Additional reporting by Silvia Aloisi in Rome and Josie Cox in Berlin; editing by Andrew Roche

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