I hate to be a naysayer, but…


Liam points out, quite correctly, much of the media and the BBC in particular going orgasmic over Barack O’Bama’s election. At this point in time you sort of wish Edward Said was still alive, and wonder whether he would describe this as an Orientalist love affair.

But it’s clear that everybody wants a piece of the president-elect. Gordon Brown is dying for a photocall, in the hope that some of the stardust will rub off. Brian Cowen wants O’Bama to visit Ireland, to get in touch with his ancestral heritage. I believe the Kenyans have a similar idea in mind. I was also quite touched by seeing the celebrations by the citizens of Obama, Japan. It reminded me of that (possibly apocryphal) story about Palestinians cheering Gazza’s footballing exploits.

Of course, there’s also been the suggestion that the New Messiah should visit the North in order to boost the peace process. Honestly, these American presidents are like buses. We don’t get one here for 200 years, then you can’t move for the buggers. I also notice the SDLP trying to dine out on the claim that their man has won. This is based on the somewhat tendentious idea that both O’Bama and the SDLP are the modern manifestations of Dr King’s civil rights politics.

But back to the BBC. Yesterday, the O’Bama story took up approximately 70% of the day’s bulletins. There was one other major story, which was Lewis Hamilton’s homecoming to the McLaren team. Actually, the two stories were explicitly linked, with copious references to the first black US president and the first black Formula 1 champion. Hamilton himself even went so far as to name-check O’Bama as an inspirational figure. And in fact they do look a little alike, so at some points it was hard to tell where one story stopped and the other started.

Now then. I’m not a follower of Formula 1 and so don’t have any strong feelings about Hamilton or any of its other denizens, although I did used to think Schumi would look well at the helm of a U-boat. Most of the hype has passed me by. I also take with just a pinch of salt the claim that Hamilton is going to be Britain’s first sporting billionaire – Tiger Woods, who’s been around a long time, hasn’t quite made that cut, and if what Max Mosley says about F1’s financial bubble is true, the sport is heading for a serious crash. But still, he’s famous, wealthy, lauded and he’s at the top of the world in doing something he loves. Fair enough.

What has struck me is the frequent reference to Hamilton as a role model for young black men. It’s not quite the burden of expectations borne by O’Bama, but it does seem that any halfway presentable young black man who achieves prominence in Britain ends up being hailed as a role model who can steer young black men away from knives and drugs. It helps, I suppose, that Hamilton, like O’Bama, isn’t all that black – and I’m not referring here to his mixed-race background as such, but more to the fact that he hasn’t grown up surrounded by black street culture. He doesn’t wear chav clothing and say “innit” all the time. A lot of the praise of Hamilton centres around how nice and polite and well-spoken he is. And just as the US electorate haven’t just sent Chuck D to the White House, he doesn’t show any signs of being uppity like, say, Linford was.

In short, he’s just the sort of young black man who middle-class white suburbanites can take to their hearts, because really he isn’t too far from being one of their own. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that, of course. But what it has to do with gangs and knife crime beats me. I say, let the young lad enjoy his success and don’t burden him with having to be a poster boy for some Daily Mail view of what black folks should be like. That won’t do anybody any good at all.


  1. Seán said,

    November 6, 2008 at 5:10 pm

    He’d be an even greater role model if he came back to the UK and paid a bit of fucking tax.

  2. splinteredsunrise said,

    November 6, 2008 at 5:23 pm

    Well, that’s true. It’s a bit like Bono orating on what’s best for Ireland while refusing to pay taxes in Ireland. Only a bit, mind – he has a long way to go before being as big an arse as Bono.

  3. ejh said,

    November 6, 2008 at 7:40 pm

    He’s the only world famous person ever to go to my school (which, er, expelled him from a few months, as their Wikipedia entry does not say, though I might amend it). Oddly I can remember only one black pupil during my seven years there. (No, not him, I’m a bit older than that.)

    I once wrote a piece for When Saturday Comes objecting to the whole idea of role models, but even if we accept it for a mo – were there no black role models in the sporting field, in the UK, before Lewis Hamilton? Does it really make any difference to anybody’s propsects or self-image?

    Maybe it does and my questions aren’t as rhetorical as I’d like, but the whole reason for my suspicion of the concept is precisely that it seems to me to say “look, people like you can achieve, so it’s your fault that you haven’t”. I thin kit’s more of a stick to beat the world’s underachievers (which is most of us, let’s face it) than a carrot to help us become world-beaters.

    I missed the race, by the way. We get the TV working four days after my old schoolmate (sort of) wins the world championship. And you know why? Because we didn’t try hard enough, that’s why.

  4. Darren said,

    November 6, 2008 at 10:34 pm

    “In short, he’s just the sort of young black man who middle-class white suburbanites can take to their hearts, because really he isn’t too far from being one of their own.”

    Did someone mention Theo Walcott?

  5. skidmarx said,

    November 7, 2008 at 10:58 am

    Gary Younge, who also grew up in Stevenage, wrote a book on the American South that begins “I grew up in the South, the South of Stevenage”. What is generally geographically remarkable about Stevenage is that it has very few traffic lights, having lots of roundabouts and the best system of cycle lanes in Europe. Bill Bryson writes somewhere that it is diffcult to comprehend some levels of boredom unless you come from Stevenage.

  6. ejh said,

    November 7, 2008 at 10:59 am

    Or unless you’ve read Bill Bryson.

  7. organic cheeseboard said,

    November 7, 2008 at 12:50 pm

    he hasn’t grown up surrounded by black street culture. He doesn’t wear chav clothing and say “innit” all the time.

    not many black people do that either, ‘innit’ is very old school street slang and chav-wear is very distinct from the kinds of clothees that young black men in the inner city wear.

    Though Lewis does like his bling…

    it’s also worth pointing out that Obama might not have been brought up in Black American stret culture but he was clearly immersed in it while working as an organiser in Chicago.

  8. skidmarx said,

    November 7, 2008 at 4:46 pm

    I think you mean “Old Skool!”

    The ITV commentator said 23 laps from the end “The pieces on the chessboard are beginning to take shape”. So I drifted off until Glock’s choice of dry tyres forced him to slow on the last lap (or his friendship with Hamilton) and Hamilton got back up into fifth.

    The BBC had a reporter in Brixton called “Paraic O’Brien” which sounds a lot like “Barack Obama” if you’re not paying close attention. Not a body double.

    Bruno Senna appears to be a clone of Ralf Little, the comedic actor.

    Last night on Never Mind The Buzzcocks Alexei Sayle was singing the Internationale (and I think Phill Jupitus was having a bit of trouble with the words) in defence of his media comrades. I seem to remember that Slavoy Zizek once claimed that the old communist traditions were dead because he couldn’t get anyone to sing the Internationale with him.

  9. ejh said,

    November 7, 2008 at 4:48 pm

    And I should hope not too, the lyrics are awful.

  10. Seán said,

    November 7, 2008 at 6:11 pm

    Hate to be a spoil sport but isn’t Formula 1 literally a waste of oxygen? As well as being a soporific.

  11. ergosity said,

    November 7, 2008 at 6:22 pm

    Surely Formula 1 is the most pointless activity known in the history of mankind?
    No wait… I forgot about *watching* Formula 1.

    It’s always been a mystery to me why it gets so much media attention. Or how people can go to events and wave *car manufacturer* flags as if they were at a proper sporting event.

  12. WorldbyStorm said,

    November 7, 2008 at 9:00 pm

    Michelle Obama is credited with introducing him to African American culture. But I’d broadly agree with organic cheeseboard (not a phrase I ever thought I’d write sober. Or drunk) … Obama was/is an activist, something he got serious flak for from the Republicans… To be honest as someone with a foot in both Ireland and England in terms of background, something I’ve always appreciated, I think having a US President with such an immediately mixed cultural and racial heritage is fascinating. As long as he remembers to use the experiences.

  13. yourcousin said,

    November 9, 2008 at 4:31 pm

    it’s also worth pointing out that Obama might not have been brought up in Black American street culture but he was clearly immersed in it while working as an organiser in Chicago.

    Which adds up to exactly nothing. I’ve been immersed with Mexican culture since childhood and I’m no closer to being Pancho Villa. The closest I’ve come is to have gained the nick name “La Mennonita” which is as close to associating with Chihuaha as I would like. Lets remember that Obama stopped in from Hawaii on his way to Harvard law. Community organizer looks great on a resume, but whether it means jack shit is debatable.

    The big question is whether this will affect the majority population is questionable. Both Rice and Powell took seats at the Whitehouse and I haven’t seen any corresponding numbers indicating that this changed the everyday lives of the African American communities throughout America (drop in incarceration rates for example). So whether this last glass ceiling actually changes things is still suspect in my book. Remember, “rise with your class, not out of it”.

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