Nov 8, 2008

World - Learning from Obama's path to presidency

Prabhudev Konana

The phenomenon called Obamania is a great learning experience. This is especially so for India, which needs to tackle inequities and develop social opportunity through a portfolio approach with meaningful goals.

Finally, the U.S. presidential election 2008 comes to a historical end. This election will go down as one of the greatest victories for democracy and a symbolic victory for One America. It was a triumph of hope over fear. Barack Obama’s success is also a victory for the pursuit of that perfect Union with peace, liberty, equality, and opportunity for all.

The Austin American-Statesman, a local newspaper in Austin, Texas, reported a fascinating story of Amanda Jones, a 109-year-old woman born to a man who was once a slave, as she proudly cast her vote for Mr. Obama. After 50 years, 106-year-old nun Sister Cecilia Gaudette, a U.S. citizen living in a convent in Rome, chose to exercise her rights to vote for him. Mr. Obama received numerous endorsements from individuals who formed the backbone of the conservative movement in the United States. The long lines and massive crowds of over 200,000 in Berlin to over 100,000 in St. Louis to hear him gave credence to this phenomenon called Obamania.

This election was indeed a great learning experience of U.S. history, the racial and cultural divide, reconciliation, and progress.

Mr. Obama’s presidency has not come easy. Martin Luther King, the slain Civil Rights leader, Rosa Parks, who defiantly refused to give up her seat for a white passenger, and numerous other individuals laid the foundation. President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 signalling the end of discrimination that was ubiquitous in everyday activity in schools, buses, restaurants, and jobs. Before that, in 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt outlawed segregationist hiring policies in federal contracts.

Richard Cohen, a columnist of The Washington Post, said LBJ was a transformational figure who signed this Act into law despite being aware that his Democratic party could lose southern states (barring a few exceptions, this was true even in the recent election). The columnist rightly characterises Mr. Obama as a conformational figure in relation to the actions taken four decades ago. The revolution happened silently during this time.

It took the U.S. four decades to make transformation as a concept into a reality. However, without large support from white Americans, this would not have become a reality. Many things have happened — a societal transformation that understood, recognised, and appreciated different races and created opportunities. The younger generation, untainted by the past, is at the heart of this transformation. Exit polls suggest that 66 per cent of the younger population voted for Mr. Obama, while a majority of those over 65 years of age voted for his opponent. Why such stark differences? Clearly the younger population is more likely to interact with minorities in schools, universities, and workplaces where there is an increasing focus on diversity and opportunities for all. The message of hope resonated with the younger population deeply embedded in social networks and instant messaging rather than race or fear. Interestingly, the Obama campaign encouraged and channelled the young to convince their parents and grandparents who were unwilling to look beyond race issues.

I spoke to my colleagues, including Reuben McDaniel, who was among the first few African American professors in the 1960s in a mostly white campus, to understand this transformation over the last four decades.

There are many events and initiatives that have collectively made transformation a reality. Governmental actions played a key role in creating opportunities. These included the Civil Rights Act of 1964; affirmative action that gave preference based on race or ethnicity in education; and regulations to promote minority businesses in government contracts. Several States introduced innovative legislation to bring diversity in higher education. In the State of Texas, students in the top 10 per cent of their graduating class could get automatic admission to any State school, which allowed students from predominantly minority population to enter top public universities.

There were highly respected white Americans who championed diversity and invited African Americans of exceptional talent to key positions in major universities and governments. Often these champions poached on talent in lesser-known institutions to fill positions of greater public exposure and visibility as role models. There were key African American leaders who continued to bring attention to inequities through public dialogue. There was greater discourse in understanding U.S. history, including slavery and discrimination, at the very early stages of education. It is common across the nation for students to participate in events to celebrate black history and culture each year. Irrespective of the background, the younger generation has grown up understanding past injustices and inequities.

Businesses played a crucial role in encouraging diversity. Practically all major businesses and universities in the U.S. have diversity offices and active programmes to recruit minorities, including women. Fortune magazine routinely publishes a list of the top 50 best companies that hire, retain, and promote minorities. Large businesses set goals in their diversity initiatives and to monitor progress. Universities now work with high schools to recognise and attract talented minority students. There are organisations (such as that actively monitor and promote diversity in various institutions and businesses. These organisations publicly recognise businesses for their achievements. Even Hollywood programmes are monitored for diversity.

Finally, college sports have also played an important role in bringing blacks into traditionally white-only universities. Some key college coaches recognised that winning (American) football or basketball games transcends any initial resistance to having black athletes. As more talented black athletes brought results to college sports, more schools were eager to accept them. We now see Tiger Woods a phenomenon by himself in golf. Most leading football and basketball stars are blacks and have huge mainstream following and endorsements.

The younger generation has grown up with changing times and readily accepts blacks and other minority groups. So it is not just laws that created opportunities and acceptance, but a portfolio of actions involving individuals, sports, and public, private and non-profit entities.

In the Indian context, there is much to learn from all this. Granted that the problems of minorities in the U.S. are problems for the majority of people in India. Disparities and discrimination run thousands of years deep and are deeply woven into the social fabric. Hence, we need even greater focus and intensity in a portfolio approach to nip at the social evils and create opportunities for the underprivileged. The younger generation will make that difference.

Affirmative actions — not necessarily quotas — play an important role in creating opportunities. However, some elites argue that democracy leads to more populist measures like quotas and that these are a cancer that breeds mediocrity. While there is some truth in these arguments, they are na├»ve in their assessment. It is true that well-off individuals exploit the system at the expense of the deserving students from under-represented or over-represented communities. However, some form of affirmative action creates immediate opportunities for students who have the passion to succeed, despite inferior preparation at the early stages of education. The system cannot continually punish underprivileged youth and lose another generation without opportunities.

One can criticise affirmative actions ideologically. But those who work with rural and poor urban schools can vouch for the horrendous learning environment and non-existent family support for children to succeed. Affirmative action is a ‘risk’ worth taking since, even if these children fail, they will work harder to educate their next generation. One can address poor preparation with remedial programmes. I do acknowledge that excessive reliance on government-mandated quotas or preference is not desirable in the long run. However, those who object need to have patience. What is clear is that the collective role of the broader community — individuals, non-profit organisations, and public and private sectors — will have a greater impact to create opportunities.

Some business leaders, including N.R. Narayana Murthy of Infosys, joined together to experiment with a programme to train promising Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes students and to place them in reputed firms. The experiment was a great success and is in the right direction. However, this programme was ostensibly to ward off government quotas in the private sector. It would be ideal if businesses treated such programmes as strategic initiatives rather than a favour or charity to the country. The efforts will lead to a greater pool of talent, improve corporate reputation, and create huge ripple effects as future customers. Government contracts and incentives should reward those who create such social benefits. There should be tax incentives for satisfying social objectives of creating jobs for the underprivileged rather than imposing higher taxes.

The media and NGOs have a role to play here: bringing transparency and awareness on diversity issues. They can monitor and reward businesses that enhance diversity and opportunities for the underprivileged. If the private sector does not take some ownership of increasing diversity, then the government may impose an even greater burden with unwanted laws. In fact, decades of inaction to reach the broader community in premier educational institutions have now resulted in greater governmental interference and quota. Social activists should work towards creating opportunities for underprivileged rather than becoming a hindrance to progress in the name of fighting for their rights. They need to work with government and businesses in creating opportunities rather than just focussing on protests.

India needs to tackle inequities through a portfolio approach with meaningful goals. Government is just one piece of the puzzle and not a substitute for everything. It can play a positive role in nudging society and stakeholders to create opportunities for all. There is need for greater collective transformational efforts involving governments, individuals, universities, businesses, and NGOs. We can then hope to see thousands of successful Obamas from the underprivileged communities.

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