Thursday, November 13, 2008

Barack Obama - the Lula of the U.S.?

The Christian Science Monitor has an article up that raises an interesting comparison/question - will Obama be to the U.S. what Lula has been to Brazil? It's a tough question to answer, primarily because Lula has 6 years of presidential administration behind him, while Obama has, well, none. As a result, the article focuses more on what Lula has accomplished. Still, given that, like Obama, Lula inherited a government whose economy was in trouble (though not like the global economy today) and who had come from his country's political left (yes, Obama isn't "left," but in terms of our party system, it's as close as we've had in a long time).

At first, I wanted to reflexively disagree with the article's suggestion that Obama is the U.S.'s Lula, but the more you look at things, the more similar they are: both were raised by single mothers out of relatively difficult positions; both were "outsiders" to the traditional party systems who managed to overcome the entrenched political aristocracy to become leaders of their respective countries; both advocate social change, but with a methodical, steady approach, rather than an "all the chips on the table" method; and both are big proponents of diplomatic relations to resolve their own country's and other countries' issues. What is more, both Lula and Obama mark a major social shift in an office that had traditionally been held by white elites; Lula, as a worker who rose up through the metal factories to become a union leader before entering politics; and Obama, an African-America. Finally, like Lula, I suspect that Obama will have to lead from the center-left, creating real social change but still disappointing his more progressive and radical supporters (though certainly, after eight years of Bush, many of Obama's supporters, while perhaps disappointed in the future, will also have a fairly good grasp of the alternatives). Despite my initial reflex, reflecting further on the issue, there seemed to be more in common between the two men than I at first wanted to admit.

I think the major differences between what the election of Lula meant to Brazil and what Obama's election means is not the differences (or similarities) between the two men, but rather the differences in the context of the two. Brazil's electing of Lula was a major watershed, because it did prove you did not have to be part of the elite to attain higher office. Lula is a man who never had a college education, and who had to work in his youth instead of going to school, just to help support his family. He lost a finger working in the factories, and gradually rose up through the labor structure to become a major union leader, gaining fame in fighting both for greater workers' rights and fighting at the head of a new coalition of opposition towards Brazil's military dictatorship in the late 1970s (Lula was even briefly arrested and tortured). Yes, by the time Lula was elected in 2002, the PT had been active as a political party for over 20 years, and Lula had won in his fourth attempt to become president (having run unsuccessfully in 1989, 1994, and 1998), so he was far from a political "outsider." Nonetheless, he marked the first time Brazil elected somebody who was not from the economic and political elite, and thus marked a major breakthrough in the classism of Brazilian elections. Indeed, it was his very background as a laborer and union leader that has caused so much animosity, hatred, and slander from many sectors of the middle class (many of my in-laws included).

Likewise, as many people have observed, Obama's election was a breakthrough, in that the U.S. elected an African-American. The historical import of this cannot be overstated, and there have been plenty of anecdotes, images, and historical reminders of just how huge it is that Obama won, ranging from the fact that only 54 years ago, Brown v. Board was decided; the Civil Rights Act is only 44 years old; Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed 40 years ago; and if those reminders didn't say enough, the tears flowing down Jesse Jackson's face last Tuesday night said more than enough. In many ways, what Lula did for class barriers in Brazil, Obama did for racial barriers in the U.S.

But, as I said, I think the social and historical context of the two countries makes Obama's victory and Lula's presidency more different symbolically. Simply put, I think Obama's victory is more symbolically important than Lula's, and the reason is simple: I think racism in the U.S. is structurally stronger and more severe than classism in Brazil or the U.S. The reasons for this are multiple: in the U.S., class and race are closely (though not always) tied together, so that often statements of class really are statements on race. What is more, our notions of "middle class" are so vague and open-ended that virtually anybody can and does claim they are "middle class," from the family of four making only $50,000 collectively per year to the lawyer who pulls in $300,000+ and considers herself/himself "upper middle class." Because of the ways race has historically operated in this country, we simply base many of our judgements based on one's racial qualities, and I think it's fair to say that, in the most general terms, racism trumps classism in how we view our fellow citizens. And I realize that's a huge, charged statement. I want to make absolutely clear that there is, without question, classism in the U.S. too. The very fact that virtually everybody identifies as "middle class" shows the stigma towards being "poor," and we often make fun of "white trash" and "rednecks" and "shitkickers," with class being a central part of those criticisms. Nonetheless, the number of times that we lynched a poor person, prevented a poor person from voting, or hired a poor person based simply on class and not on race, is relatively small compared to the number of times those things were done based on race.

In Brazil, it's not so clear-cut, and I would suggest that racism and classism are far more muddled in Brazil than they are even in the U.S. Ever since Gilberto Freyre's work in the 1930s, Brazil has culturally refused to acknowledge its racism, claiming that because Brazilians were historically "forced" to mix between Portuguese, indigenous peoples, and African slaves because of the colonial context in Brazil, there can be no racism. The logic goes that, because of all of those generations of mixing, there are too many skin tones to be able to simply categorize somebody as one race or another, and since there's a whole lot more "brown" in Brazil, there can't be racism like there is in the U.S., where there is the "black/white" dichotomy based on the one-drop theory. What is more, Brazilians have often reinforced their argument of being incapable of being racist by pointing directly to the U.S. They have suggested (in a foolish argument that found support both in Brazil and the U.S.) that slavery was somehow "worse" in America, and the fact that America legally codified racism via Jim Crow laws (in addition to very public lynchings) just further reifies the arguments made in Brazil that American racism is worse than Brazilian racism.

What this thinking has done has allowed Brazilians by and large to deny the existence of racism while further encoding it in other categories, such as "culture" and class. In many of the elections, Lula constantly faced criticisms based on his education, class, and birthplace (the Northeast of Brazil, generally viewed as "inferior" by the Southern Metropole in Brazil, in no small part because of the concentration of Afro-descendants in the Northeast). Each of these criticisms carried heavy overtones of barely-hidden racism. Yet the racial content of these critiques wasn't really broached, or even confronted. Thus, even while Brazil, like Europe, has applauded the U.S. in its ability to (temporarily) overcome its racism enough to elect an African-American (and to be clear, I am in no way saying that now the U.S. is less racist than the rest of the world simply because Obama won this time around), but like Europe, Brazil has failed to reconcile itself to its ability to have an Obama-like figure in its own society. And that's exactly where the symbolic difference between Lula and Obama appears: Brazil may one day have somebody who shatters barriers like Obama did, but Lula, for all of the barriers he himself shattered, is not that person.

To sum up what is admittedly a rather long post, there are a lot of similarities between Lula and Obama. However, I think this similarities do not overcome the major symbolic difference each man represents to his own respective culture and society. The major difference between Lula's 2002 victory and Obama's 2008 victory is the social monoliths which they have challenged. Lula's victory did indeed break through the elitism that had dominated Brazil's political class since the colonial period, and the "elephant" of classism in Brazil's room was very real. But racism was and remains the larger proverbial elephant in Brazil; chipping away at classism did not erode the deeper-seated ways that racism operates in Brazil. Thus, in terms of what the event of Obama's election represents to the U.S. vs. what Lula's represented to Brazil, the comparison simply does not hold up - Obama's symbolic importance has done things for American society that Lula's has not done and never could do in Brazil. For that to happen, Brazil will need its own "Barack Obama."