If there were one thing the election of US President Barack Obama might do for American society, it would be to corrode the utility of the expression “token black.”
Obama’s ethnic background has turned out to be a boon for the local and global reputation of the US political system, but his rise to the presidency at no time could afford to crudely trade on his black identity, because most voters would not have tolerated it. This man became US president because of his intelligence, hard work, attractive policies, teamwork and communicative talent.
Obama gives hope to people who support a fair deal for minorities, but his triumph in overcoming the formidable talents of Democratic challenger Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Republican presidential candidate Senator John McCain also validates the importance of individual merit and ambition over labels and labeling.
It is a classic American story, and it is a long way from over.
It may be impossible for Obama to meet most of the expectations that are being placed on his shoulders, not least by a black American community that remains mired in disadvantage. But expectations are a manifestation of hope, and Obama has engendered a continent’s worth of it, if not a globe’s worth.
The US has helped to generate a phase of horrible economic uncertainty, yet Obama has the opportunity not just to be a good president at a time of increasing deprivation, but also a president that ushers in a new era of international respectability and, in balance, benevolent influence.
For Taiwan, Obama’s rise to the top has brought no shortage of apprehension. While Obama’s principles are quite flawless, the record of his party on relations with Taiwan has been all too inconsistent.
But there are two factors working in his favor: The likely line-up of Washington staffers with Taiwan and China responsibilities may not be as effusively pro-China as had been feared; and it is hard to imagine that things will get any worse than under the last years of former US president George W. Bush’s administration.
For Taiwanese, the overriding question is this: What will Obama do with a Chinese state that is becoming increasingly assertive and arrogant and that is no less willing to rationalize systematic crimes against its own people?
If there is such a thing as a unitary Taiwanese voice, then perhaps this is what it would say to President Obama:
I honor and share your ideals, I wish to strengthen relations with an America that cultivates democracy and freedom and I have my own interests but they are not hostile to those of ordinary Americans. I reject despotism and the cynicism that flows from ossified structures of political patronage — and I ask humbly but urgently that you consider my international and military predicament with sympathy and act on it with resolve as necessary.
I wish China no ill, but the current Chinese government bears ill will for Taiwanese and scorns American values. My present government does not respect the fears of people who see little promise in a Chinese government that crushes human rights and exploits the poor even as it claims to champion both.
I am Taiwanese, and my identity is no less fundamental to my dignity and my future than that of a man who transcended hundreds of years of persecution of people of his kind to lead the most powerful and inspirational nation in the world.