The awarding of the Nobel Prize for Peace to Barrack Obama has provoked what one correspondent called “a huge national conversation.” The responses have ranged from shock to downright viciousness. President Obama acknowledges that the award is more for hope and American leadership than for anything he himself has achieved personally. But reporters keep asking the question, “Does he deserve it?”
Given the rarity with which the press addresses the merit of Nobel Peace Prize recipients, the question of Obama’s merit is disturbing and accommodates a public debate that is not in and of itself racist but is a legacy of America’s racialized society.
As an unabashedly supportive fan of Obama, I feel he does indeed deserve the Nobel Prize. As a sociologist and observer of American race relations, I actually think that Obama’s achieving the United States presidency is enough of an achievement to merit the award. Obama’s election contributed to generating a world with more peace because it became a defining transformative moment in the history of American race relations. As American race relations move forward, they shine lights of hope through what Richard Wright once called the world’s “color curtain.”
More than two million people came to Washington, D.C to affirm and celebrate Obama’s inauguration. Like the March on Washington in 1963, that moment was the culmination of a national movement. Obama’s election campaign generated the highest percentage of participation in the history of American electoral politics. Young people of every race, creed, color, and sexual orientation took leaves of absence from their colleges in order to work on Obama’s campaign.
Affluent young white people were sent to work in impoverished areas that brought them into contact with people far different from themselves. Political volunteers were sent to work across racial, cultural, and economic lines. Obama was the first presidential candidate to campaign on an Indian reservation and other candidates, especially Hillary Rodham Clinton, followed suit.
The Obamas addressed the fears of black Americans who hesitated to support Obama for his own safety and they overcame the apprehension of white Americans who could not understand Rev. Jeremiah Wright and Obama’s relationship with him.
If we take seriously the importance of the United States of America in the world and the truly troubling depth of our history, Obama’s achievement of the presidency is as transformative as the contribution of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, another recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize.
The shock of most Americans is fueled by their ignorance concerning the way the United States is viewed by the rest of the world. We in the United States are a very small proportion of the world’s population but we have a tremendous, often dominant, impact on the economy, society, culture, and environment of the rest of the world. We need to grasp the importance of our nation and we need to understand the impact, especially the negative impact, we have had on the lives of people around the world.
Barack Obama is one of four American presidents (three sitting and one former) who have received the Nobel Prize for Peace; one of those presidents, Woodrow Wilson, re-segregated the civil service in Washington, D.C., and affirmed the racist vision of the movie “Birth of a Nation”; another, Theodore Roosevelt, invited Booker T. Washington to the White House and found himself besieged with hate mail; the other, Jimmy Carter, started his public life as a member of a whites-only Baptist Church.
Obama is also one of three African Americans who have received the Nobel Prize for Peace. The other two, King and Ralph Bunche, made stellar contributions that shone through the perceived color curtain. As a Howard University professor and department chair, Bunche provided a home in his Political Science department for Jewish refugee scholars from Nazi Germany and helped to create the state of Israel as an undersecretary at the United Nations. King inspired and mobilized large segments of this nation behind a vision of racial justice; because of King, people all over the world sing “We Shall Overcome” when they march for justice.
When King spoke before two hundred thousand activists on the National Mall in August of 1963, he challenged us to seek to “hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.” As heir to that challenge, Obama is America’s most important ambassador of hope for world peace. Every American should not only be proud of the award but should also be relieved that the world is looking to us with great expectations for leadership in progress toward world peace.
Cheryl Townsend Gilkes is the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Professor of African American Studies and Sociology and Director of the African American Studies Program at Colby College in Waterville, Maine. She is also the Assistant Pastor for Special Projects at the Union Baptist Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She served as an Obama delegate to the Maine State Democratic Convention