Al Qaeda's No. 2, Ayman Zawahiri, made a lame attempt to invalidate the idea that Barack Obama's victory is a symbol of American racial progress. It's not a surprise really. The United States' enemies long have used racial inequality as the stick with which to beat us. And unfortunately, it's a stick that we've handed them over and over again. Domestic discrimination has been at odds with our national mission of democratizing the world.
But Zawahiri's message suggests the ascendance of a black man to the presidency has flummoxed and confused Al Qaeda's strategists. For their purposes, they need the U.S. to be perceived as a racist nation, and one way to turn Obama's victory upside down is to call him a "house Negro," a term Malcolm X used to criticize successful African Americans whom he accused of doing the bidding of white folks, of not really being black.
For more than a century, the U.S. has sought to prove the superiority of its system by highlighting its fair treatment of its minorities. In 1906, when President Theodore Roosevelt made Oscar Straus the first Jew ever to serve in a Cabinet, he told his new secretary of Labor and Commerce that he wanted "to show Russia and some other countries what we think of Jews in this country."
During World War II, many Americans came to believe that racism was at odds with the principles of our democracy. The struggle against Nazism inspired the belief that prejudice was un-American. For African Americans, the war effort gave them hope for a "double V," a victory abroad against fascism and stateside against racism.
During the Cold War, the U.S. government became increasingly sensitive to foreign press coverage about domestic discrimination. After all, freedom was our trump card over the communists. In 1946, then-Acting Secretary of State Dean Acheson wrote that "the existence of discrimination against minority groups in this country has an adverse effect upon our relations with other counties. We are reminded over and over by some foreign newspapers and spokesmen that our treatment of various minorities leaves much to be desired. ... Frequently we find it next to impossible to formulate a satisfactory answer to our critics."
A decade later, the Justice Department's amicus brief in the case of Brown vs. Board of Education stated clearly that "the United States is trying to prove to the people of the world, of every nationality, race and color, that a free democracy is the most civilized and most secure form of government yet devised by man."
Of course, despite its international public relations efforts, for the longest time the U.S. actually was practicing and exporting notions of white supremacy, racial purity and segregation. As the country stretched itself into an empire, it took its racial prejudice and Jim Crow practices with it. Anthropologist Virginia Dominguez has written that before Americans arrived in Hawaii, the indigenous population simply did not view race and racial distinctions in the way the American government would later insist they should.
Our foreign-affairs gurus' theories were right, of course, even if we didn't fulfill them. The election of a black man to the presidency does tell the world that the U.S. is closer to fulfilling the ideals it so zealously champions around the globe. The better we are at creating equality at home, the more likely we are to confound our enemies. But the racial symbolism of Obama might take us even further than gloating about "treating our minorities better than you treat yours." That's because the man who ran as a black candidate may govern as a racially mixed president. On his first day as president-elect, Obama playfully referred to himself as a "mutt" (he was talking about choosing a dog for his daughters), which is a nicer way to say "mongrel." If the new president keeps on in that vein, if he chooses to highlight his mixed background, he could truly vanquish our old ideas of racial purity and segregation.
For more than a hundred years, Americans have often pointed to the "melting pot" as the ideal method of making this diverse society cohere. The differences among us disappear, in other words. But we've long known that widespread denial of race mixing, along with racism, prejudice and anti-miscegenation laws, meant that "melting" was really reserved only for ethnic whites. The deeper racial significance of Obama might be that we can finally come to terms with the fact that the proverbial pot has and will mix races as well as ethnicities. Out of many, one. Really.
Talk about confounding our enemies.