[dehai-news] (The Star-Ledger - NJ) Washington DC''s African immigrants see Obama redefining race

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From: Biniam Tekle (biniamt@dehai.org)
Date: Fri Jan 16 2009 - 09:29:05 EST

Washington's African immigrants see Obama redefining race Posted by
<http://blog.nj.com/njv_bob_braun/about.html>Bob Braun/Star-Ledger
columnist<http://blog.nj.com/njv_bob_braun/about.html>January 15, 2009

WASHINGTON -- This is a city preparing for an historical moment -- and not
just a date, the inauguration of the first African-American president, to be
noted in books. It's too easy to say it's the moment slavery or the Civil
War or Jim Crow ended.

"The narrative of America changes," says Kobina Aidoo, a young filmmaker and
public policy analyst from here, co-editor of the African Policy Review at

He was born in Ghana, part of a growing African immigrant population in the
nation's capital city.

"It is not simply a matter of white Americans and black Americans
confronting a shared past. It is a redefinition of who is white, who is
black, who is African-American, and how we should treat each other," says
Aidoo, 32, who has taken his film, "The Neo-African-Americans," to college
campuses throughout the country, including Princeton.

"Barack Obama is the bridge to that redefinition."

He is the bridge because Obama combines the immigrant experience -- his
father was Kenyan, part of the vanguard of a burgeoning African immigration
in the last 30 years -- and the American black experience.

"He is from both worlds, and he changes both," says Aidoo.

Not just a semantic question, but one with real policy implications.

"Why should African immigrants be beneficiaries of affirmative action in
colleges?" asks Aidoo, who has a master's degree from Harvard.

"If the point of it was to make up for the sins of the past, we weren't part
of that past --but now we're taking advantage of it. And colleges are
getting credit for it."

There is more. Evidence, for example, that employers may be discriminating
against African-Americans to hire African immigrants -- and boasting about

Complex changes in attitudes by blacks and whites. Little things, big

"If I am pulled over for speeding by a white cop," says Aidoo, "I don't
immediately think it's because my skin color is dark. I didn't go through
that experience. I don't have that baggage. Maybe it's racism, but I don't
see it."

At the same time, white Americans are confronted with black Americans who
simply don't fit their stereotypes of how African-Americans look or speak.

"It forces whites to look beyond skin color, to look at the person," he

This is the right city for this change to begin. According to census data,
more than 11 percent of Washington's immigrants are African, compared with 3
percent nationally. Of the more than 3 million African immigrants in this
country, almost half live here.

Washington includes large numbers of Ethiopians, Eritreans, Nigerians,
Ghanaians, Somalians, Sudanese and, of course, Kenyans.

Kenyans like William and Alice Mukabene, owners of "Safari DC," the only
restaurant in the district devoted strictly to Kenyan food. The place on
Georgia Avenue is a shrine to Obama -- and a meeting place for immigrants
from East and Central Africa.

"We are waiting for Barack and his family to come," says William, a graduate
of both the State University of New York at Buffalo and the Culinary
Institute of America in New York. He and his wife are from Kakamega in
western Kenya.

On the wall behind his bar, regulars have written homages to the new first
family, but William has insisted that space be left for inscriptions by the
president, his wife, Michelle, and daughters Malia and Sasha.

The Mukabenes believe Obama has much to teach both Africans and Americans.

"Kenyans are welcoming people," says Alice. "When you come here, we don't
ask where you are from. We ask how we can help you."

Still, Kenya was riven last year by an election that inflamed old tribal
antagonisms --and even now tensions can be felt in the Kenyan community.
Different Kenyan groups are holding different inaugural celebrations.

"This election can teach us in Kenya," says Alice Mukabene. "If Americans
can get over their racial differences, then surely we can get over

Washington will witness at least five inaugural balls sponsored by African
diplomats, business concerns, religious groups and others, including one at
the National Museum of African Art, part of the Smithsonian Institution.

"This is an extraordinary moment to teach the rest of the country about
Africa," says Anita Henri, associate director of the museum. She says the
interest generated by the campaign and the election has increased attendance
at the museum.

Some Africans worry that the difficulties the nation faces create perils for
the African-American president that no other president faced -- and that
they may be blamed if he can't solve the country's problems.

"It will be hard for him," says Matarat Wugira, a woman from Addis Ababa
working in one of the city's Ethiopian restaurants. "We don't want to see
him fail."

Aidoo doubts Obama's success or failure will be blamed on any group. The
over-riding point of the moment, he says, is that lines between groups are
blurring, maybe even disappearing.

"It's funny -- Americans think they have elected a black president because
of his skin color. Many in Africa think of him as white because of the same
thing -- his skin color."

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