One of Britain’s most influential black figures today accused Barack Obama of cynically exploiting America’s racial divide and gave warning that he could prolong, rather than heal the rift.
Trevor Phillips, chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, claimed that the Democratic front-runner would ultimately disappoint the African-American community and dismissed the notion that he would be “the harbinger of a post-racial America” if he becomes the country’s first black President.
Writing in Prospect, the monthly current affairs magazine, Mr Phillips suggested that guilt over transatlantic slavery was behind Mr Obama’s support from middle class whites.
“If Obama can succeed, then maybe they can imagine that [Martin Luther] King's post-racial nirvana has arrived. A vote for Obama is a pain-free negation of their own racism. So long as they don't have to live next door to him; Obama has yet to win convincingly in white districts adjacent to black communities,” he wrote.
Mr Phillips compared Mr Obama to Bill Cosby and Oprah Winfrey, prominent black “bargainers” – those who strike a deal with white America not to make an issue of historical racism if their own race is not used against them.
But, in a warning to the Democratic candidate, he added that Cosby now cut a “sad and lonely figure” because he had abandoned the moral weapon used by figures such as Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X and Jesse Jackson in insisting that “in the end, salvation for blacks won’t depend on the actions of whites.”
“In truth, Obama may be helping to postpone the arrival of a post-racial America and I think he knows it,” Mr Phillips wrote. “If he wins, the cynicism may be worth it to him and his party. In the end he is a politician and a very good one: his job is to win elections.”
He added: “If he fulfils the hopes of whites, he must disappoint blacks – and vice versa.”
Mr Phillips said that there was no “British Obama” in part because the black British community was much smaller and therefore less likely to produce such high-achievers, and because “Black Britons can't bring centuries of white guilt to bear with the devastating impact that African-Americans have done for two generations”.
The equality chief, a former Labour politician and broadcaster said he did not expect Mr Obama ultimately to win the Democratic nomination, although he conceded it was possible. However, if he did come to power, Mr Obama would not emulate JFK, he predicted, but Bill Clinton, with all the “charm, skill and ruthless cynicism” that entailed.
Mr Phillips is no stranger to controversy, having drawn criticism for past comments on multiculturalism in British society. Ken Livingstone, the Mayor of London, once said he was a prime candidate for the far right British National Party and his appointment to the CEHR was bitterly opposed by a number of black organisations.