In 2008, as news of Obama’s win spread, racial tensions seemed as distant as that momentous night. But now, the magic is gone
I had the following items in my soccer ball-shaped backpack that day in June 2010 at JFK airport: a vuvuzela, an envelope full of ticket stubs from the matches I attended in South Africa, and a stack of books about the history of the World Cup.
The last question I expected to be asked by the New York airport security agent was this: “What were you doing there?”
I was naive — hopeful we called ourselves — because I thought the election of Barack Obama might end these indignities that I — and many other South Asians — face upon entering the United States.
I should have known better.
“What were you really doing there?”
I wanted to point to the U.S. soccer jersey that my brother Munir was wearing. I wanted to tell the security officer that my brother and I, Indian Americans born and raised in the U.S., had planned our trip to South Africa for years, that we scoured for weeks to find tickets to the U.S. games, that we cheered from the fourth row when the U.S. scored its last minute miraculous goal against Algeria.
But the questions continued: “Whom were you rooting for?”
I wanted to take out my identification badge issued by the United States House of Representatives, the one with my photo imprinted on it, the card that verified I was a senior foreign policy aide in the U.S. Congress.
But I could not get myself to say these things. I was tired and my stomach tensed up, as it always does when I feel humiliated, and suddenly all I could say was this: “I have become very sick in South Africa. Can I use the bathroom?”
“No,” the officer said. “We cannot allow that. Security reasons.” He pointed to the side and made us stand. We waited there next to Arabs, South Asians and Latinos, with the odd white guy thrown in to make this process look random.
My brother, a cardiologist in San Francisco, pleaded with the security guard to let me use the bathroom, lest my stomach problem worsen.
The guard stood firm. “No.”
I remember the night of November 4, 2008 so well. I had invited a dozen friends over to my Washington DC apartment to watch the election returns. One of my friends even made cupcakes in the shape of the Obama logo.
The screams from the street were so loud that every time Obama won a state we could hear them eight floors above. When Obama was proclaimed president, we poured on to the streets and stood at the centre of the intersection of 14th and U Streets. It was at that exact spot that race riots broke out after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. But those racial tensions seemed so distant that night.
White people hugged black people. Gay and straight people danced together. No one cared or asked, as they do on so many other days, if you were a foreigner.
Throughout the campaign, the Obama slogan was “Yes we can” but we edited it that night.
“Yes we did,” we shouted.
We were foolish but why not? We had just endured eight years of George W. Bush — an administration that brought two wars, a further sullied U.S. image abroad, and a determination to target anyone who was perceived to be Muslim.
How could Obama be any worse, we thought, as we danced the night away.
I wonder what has changed. We have a president who boasts about drone strikes in Pakistan (which have largely targeted civilians), a president who has deported more people than Bush, and a president who is yet to roll back legislation that curtails basic civil rights. This is, after all, the same president who did not show up when seven Sikhs were gunned down this past August in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, but decided to appear at a movie theatre when a gunman fired at moviegoers.
Indeed, Obama is not worse than Bush. Bush set the bar so low that it’s sort of like that Eddie Murphy joke: when you are used to stale biscuits, even a wilted piece of bread will taste good. But America needs more right now.
Before I came to Ahmedabad a few weeks ago, I went to the polls in California and checked off Obama’s name on my ballot. On the drive to the polling station, I told myself all things I needed to do to justify this decision: he is better than Romney, he has tried to improve the U.S. health-care system, he is solidly pro-gay rights, he respects a woman’s right to chose what happens to her body, he knows that daal is a dish and not a country.
As I stood in the voting booth, I kept thinking about that moment at the airport and the questions far too many Americans still ask of me: are you really an American? Really?
When I was in South Africa at the U.S.-Algeria game, an African-American pulled out a massive American flag and spread it over the entire cheering section. He did not care who was under the flag. It was big enough, he told us, for all.
I had that feeling when I voted for Obama in 2008. I loved that feeling. I miss it.
But now I know better: it is gone.
(Zahir Janmohamed is a freelance writer living in and writing about Juhapura, the Muslim neighbourhood of Ahmedabad. He previously served as the Advocacy Director for Amnesty International and Senior Foreign Policy Aide in the U.S. Congress. Follow him on Twitter @zahirj)