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Beyond Black and White: Ethnic Media Respond to Obama’s Call for Dialogue on Race

New America Media, News Digest, NAM Staff Posted: Mar 26, 2008

Editor's Note: A lively conversation about race in America is taking place in the ethnic media, where Latino, Asian, Arab and Native American commentators agree that the traditional black-white dialogue must be expanded. But Sen. Barack Obama's speech on race has some of them wondering whether he is the right man for the job.

Called a “symbol of unity” and a “sign of divisiveness,” and compared to Fidel Castro and Korean politicians, Sen. Barack Obama’s call for a national dialogue on race produced a litany of responses from the ethnic media. But all of them seemed to agree on one thing: the longstanding black-white national dialogue about race is long overdue for an overhaul.

Obama's speech on race in America was called “courageous and forceful” by members of the Korean-American community, but few seemed to believe that American attitudes toward race would be swayed by it.

The Korea Times called the speech “a fearless challenge” in its March 23 editorial. Instead of choosing to avoid race – which the editorial calls “the toxic substance in American politics” – Obama bravely launched a frontal assault to confront the controversy over the remarks of his former pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Obama was a member of Wright's church for 20 years.

Although it praised Obama’s speech as eloquent and courageous, the editorial pointed out that its effect is uncertain. “Now it’s the voters’ turn to respond to the race issue,” editors write. “Korean-American voters are among the voters who will have to decide whether Americans’ good sense and rationality can overcome race.”

Chinese American readers weren't easily swayed by Obama’s speech, according to Joseph Leung, executive editor of the Sing Tao Daily, yet interracial relations remain a concern of the Chinese American community. Chinese and African American communities may communicate well on a political level, Leung notes, but day-to-day communications between ordinary people in the two communities are still lacking.

Each community saw Obama’s speech in the context of their homeland politics. For Korean Americans, Obama’s speech recalled the tactics of South Korea’s liberal presidential candidates who ran on a platform of social equality in the mid-1990s, but failed to deliver once they were in office.

James Kim of Granada Hills says he doesn’t question Obama’s sincerity, but says it takes more than just one person to create a change in the political system.

“I don’t think the past two Korean presidents deliberately deceived the people,” says Kim. “I don’t question Obama’s intention, either. But there’s always a big gap between ideals and reality.”

South Florida's Spanish-language media responds to a heavily Cuban-American audience (roughly 80 percent of Cuban Americans voted for Bush in 2004). Not surprisingly, many of the region’s Latino commentators dismissed Obama's speech as a calculated attempt to evade bad PR caused by Wright’s remarks. Wright has preached the belief that HIV was created deliberately by the U.S. government to decimate the black population.

Writing for Miami's daily newspaper El Nuevo Herald, columnist Adolfo Rivero Caro called Obama's charismatic, oratorically-talented persona "messianic" and "demagogic," even comparing him to former Cuban President Fidel Castro and Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. "Seducing the public, talking of the extraordinary future that awaits them, always has seemed to me a cheap trick."

Vicente Echerri writes in El Nuevo Herald that “his racial origin, ideal for representing the American who has transcended prejudices and stereotypes, will serve him very little when he identifies so absolutely with a racial group, with a black church presided by a prophet of racism."

The notion that Obama could bring the concerns of Latino voters to the table was a subject of debate in the Spanish-language media.

Three days after Obama’s speech, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson endorsed the candidate. Interviewed live on CNN en Español, Richardson said Obama's words on race had clinched his decision. Hispanics, he said, are suffering from hate crimes and demonization as a result of an immigration backlash. They need a candidate who understands the folly of pitting race against race.

In his speech, Obama indicated that undocumented immigrants should not be scapegoated for the nation’s economic troubles.

But some brushed aside Obama's rhetoric of racial healing to ask for a more tangible Latino-oriented platform. One of them was Steven J. Ybarra, a longtime Democratic Party activist and undecided superdelegate from California. "I listened to Barack's speech," he writes in passing in a March 25 column on HispanicVista.com, before turning to the more tangible issues that will decide his vote at the Democratic Convention.

"I am going to ask the candidate where is our place at the table," he writes. "Because we are tired of just cooking, cleaning up, and getting blamed when the party goes bad." Ybarra is referring to past Latino voter drives in general elections, which he believes were hobbled by lack of funds and inattention from the "East Coast power brokers" in the Democratic National Committee. He also points to a "brown-black divide," acknowledging that Latinos often feel brushed aside in political and economic deal making that includes blacks.

Despite the fact that a majority of Latinos have said they support Sen. Hillary Clinton, the largest Spanish-language daily in the country, La Opinión in Los Angeles, endorsed Obama in the Democratic primary.

An editorial in La Opinión the day after Obama’s speech praised it as a symbol of unity, saying that "the social and economic challenges faced by whites, blacks, Latinos and immigrants are similar whatever our obvious differences."

Readers of the San Jose, Calif.-based Vietnamese newspaper Calitoday had the opposite response. One reader, identified as Kevin Nguyen, posted a comment on the newspaper’s Web site that said that given Rev. Wright’s influence on Obama, “If Obama is president, he is bound to create divisiveness in America.”

Even as Obama has been chided for his connection to the religious leader, another current of accusations has followed the candidate: the false assertion that, because of the way his name sounds, he is Muslim.

In the Arab media, journalists expressed concerns over the nature of these “attacks” made against Obama that highlight what they believe to be widespread “Islamophobia” in the United States.

“He is ‘accused’ of being a Muslim,” Dr. Fawaz Gerges, a professor of international relations at Sarah Lawrence College in New York, told the Saudi Kingdom Television. “The beautiful name Hussein has become the ‘kiss of death.’”

Hasan Al Barari wrote in the Jordanian Al-Ghad Newspaper that he personally preferred Obama over all the other candidates, but wished he had responded differently when accused of being a Muslim. "Obama should have said, ‘What if I were a Muslim?’ If he had said that, he would have changed the dynamics of the debate, and exposed the chauvinists that are making these accusations.”

Dr. Gerges agreed, telling the Saudi television station that Obama missed an opportunity to defend Muslim Americans. “Truly,” he said, “it is painful that the most important progressive candidate in America, Barack Obama, has not used this opportunity to educate American society about the Islamic civilization.”

Sa’d Al Deen Ibrahim wrote on Yemeni Al-Motamar’s Web site that when Obama is accused of being Muslim he usually gives an affirmative answer consisting of two words, “I’m Christian,” as if being Muslim is a crime and he is innocent of it.

While his campaign managers view the fact that Obama’s father was a Muslim as a liability, Arab journalists view it as an asset that may enable Obama to better communicate with the Muslim and Arab worlds.

Each ethnic newspaper took Obama's race speech as an opportunity to place its own community into a national dialogue that has long ignored them.

The Native American Times published a commentary titled, "Include the Invisible Americans in Race Debates," by Tim Giago (Nanwica Kciji), an Oglala Lakota Indian born on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota and the former publisher of New York’s Indian Country Today. "When it comes to race relations,” Giago writes, “Native Americans are the invisible people."

However, a letter to the editor by reader Masleca noted that Barack Obama mentioned Native Americans in his speech. The paper quoted Obama as saying, "This time we want to talk about the crumbling schools that are stealing the future of black children and white children and Asian children and Hispanic children and Native American children."

Reporting by Elena Shore, Marcelo Ballvé, Jalal Ghazi, Kenneth Kim, Peter Micek, Andrew Lam and Jun Wang.


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