NEW YORK – Why do Europeans adore America’s president-elect, Barack Obama? Stupid question, you might say. He is young, handsome, smart, inspiring, educated, cosmopolitan, and above all, he promises a radical change from the most unpopular American administration in history. Compare that to his rival John McCain, who talked about change, but to most Europeans represented the opposite.
And yet, there is something odd about the European mania for a black American politician, even as we all know that a black president or prime minister (let alone one whose middle name is Hussein) is still unthinkable in Europe. Or perhaps that is precisely the point.
Europeans have long been hospitable to black American stars. Think of Josephine Baker, who wowed Parisians and Berliners at a time when blacks could not vote – or even use the same bathrooms as whites – in many parts of the United States. Cities like Paris, Copenhagen, and Amsterdam offered refuge to black American jazz musicians, who needed a break from institutionalized racism. The same was true for other artists. James Baldwin, for example, found a home in France.
Since there were only very few black people in Europe, the adoration of black American stars came easily. It made Europeans feel superior to Americans. They could pat themselves on the back for their lack of racial prejudice. When large numbers of people from non-Western countries started to come to Europe after the 1960’s, this proved to be something of an illusion. Still, the illusion was nice while it lasted, and Obamamania may contain an element of nostalgia, as well as hope.