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Obama’s victory signals a new chapter in America’s relationship with the world

by Jay Walljasper

As everyone in the world now knows, American voters elected the son of an African man and a white woman as their next president.

Although race was talked about very little on the campaign trail, it dominated news reports around the world of Barack Obama’s victory.

Growing up in America during the 1960s and ‘70s, I’m old enough to remember family vacations to southern states where I noticed that gas stations along the highway had three separate bathrooms: one for men, one for women, and one for Negroes.

Although I lived in the northern state that Obama now represents in Congress, I recall a slur like “nigger” being used by people in polite conversation. I now feel regret for all the times I did not challenge racist comments from my schoolmates, and feel shame for those occasions when I buckled under to peer pressure and pretended to agree.

So for me it’s amazing and redemptive to think that a black man will soon be leading the United States.

But that was not the only amazing thing that happened on Tuesday. An equally big surprise was Obama’s victory speech in Chicago where he made a special point of addressing people watching across the world. That, too, was an historic moment.

For more than 200 years, Americans have seen themselves as apart from the rest of the planet. But that’s changing. Jet planes, the internet, satellite broadcasting, new immigrants, the 9/11 attacks, and now a president whose grandmother lives in Kenya are bridging the distance we once felt from other nations.

Even my 79-year-old mother, whose experience outside the U.S. consists of a two-hour visit to the Canadian side of Niagara Falls on another family vacation, is pleased that Barack Obama will revive America’s standing in the world. She’s deeply upset that the land she loves is widely associated with torture, human rights abuses and military aggression.

Barack Obama, who grew up in Indonesia and Hawaii, the only state where European-Americans are a minority, outnumbered by Asians and Pacific Islanders, is curious and engaged about what goes on outside America’s borders. I believe his election represents a new willingness for Americans to join the rest of the world.