When I was growing up in Iran and attending public schools in Tehran, I was constantly bombarded by state-sponsored anti-American propaganda. It's not that American public schools are free of anti-Iran propaganda; but the anti-American enmity that the Iranian regime tries to plant in children is relentless.
I never thought the propaganda had the intended impact that the Iranian regime was hoping for. But what astonishes me now is that that America's "original sin" of slavery was barely ever brought up in efforts to undermine America's moral standing among Iranians. And why didn't I really wonder about this when I lived in Iran?
Having lived in the United States for about nine years now, I think I know the answer. The fact is, although Iran doesn't have the same history of enslaving Africans, there has always been a notable bias against blacks in Iranians' perception of African-Americans. And I think the Iranian government understood very well that if they asked Iranians to name 10 things they hated about America's history, slavery probably wouldn't make the list.
This may be a hard concept for white Americans to believe, because for decades, they have been beating themselves up about slavery and the horrible way in which many of their ancestors treated blacks for most of this country's history. Of course the legacy of slavery is a large black spot on this country's claim on equality and justice.
But I think that this country's tendency to try to do right after doing wrong is a part of what makes this country great. I lived in Iran for almost seventeen years, and in addition to America, I've traveled to a number of Mediterranean and European countries. Throughout these years, the strongest condemnations of American slavery that I have heard in books and public dialogue have been in the United States. And although I've been to many different countries, I learned about the details of brutalities of slavery, lynching, American Civil War and segregation right here in the United States.
Now I have to say that I have only lived and visited the states that were part of the Union coalition during the Civil War, and my observations in America is specific to these states and African American race. Once when I visited Burlington, Iowa, I was personally the victim of terrorist jokes and stereotypes because of my nationality, and by default, I have to show up for my flights at airports half an hour earlier because of the built-in racism in America's security procedures, especially since 9/11. I think some of the ugly words that people have been screaming at McCain and Palin rallies -- with their implicit approval or active encouragement by McCain during the last debate -- are despicable and should have no currency in the twenty-first century America. The United States and many of its leaders have a long way to go in acknowledging and addressing the anti-middle eastern sentiments that they have been enflaming among the American public.
Neither are African-Americans treated equally in all aspects of American life. Unemployment and especially the current American economic downturn are multiple times harder on African-Americans, and the justice system is heavily biased against blacks and they are incarcerated and sentenced to death in disproportionate numbers, as compared to whites and Hispanics for the same crimes. As this piece is published, Troy Davis, who was convicted of murdering a police officer in 1989, has been on death row for 17 years. Davis has always denied his guilt and seven of nine prosecution witnesses have recanted their testimony since the trial, saying that they were pressured to make the case for. The Supreme Court recently denied hearing Davis' appeal. He is scheduled to be put to death next Monday.
Having offered that disclaimer, as a newcomer to this country nine years ago, I saw Americans as a people who did not shy away from their dark past, but acknowledged mistreatment of blacks almost in its entirety, with deep shame and remorse and constant effort to make it right.
Barack Obama's rise as a brilliant biracial candidate who is on the verge of capturing the presidency in the United States a little over forty years after Rev. Jim Lawson organized sit-ins in Nashville to fight segregation and Martin Luther King took Americans to the mountaintop and showed them the promise land is a testament to this country's remarkable ability to chart a new course toward a more perfect union. Many intellectuals and historians also submit that Obama's candidacy has also challenged millions of Americans to look beyond his skin color and judge him based on the content of his character and policies. Current poll numbers seem to confirm that assertion.
But what has not been covered as much in America is the impact that Obama's rise has had in eradicating racism around the world. As far as Iran and Iranian Diaspora is concerned, the changes in attitudes have been extraordinarily positive. After I wrote an article about one year ago, in which I explained why I supported Barack Obama for president, I had to have a lot of conversations with other Iranians about the election.
Throughout those conversations, I heard a lot of generic and racially-biased comments against Obama. Many Iranians - especially those still living in Iran -- worried that a President Obama would look out for black people a lot more than white people. Of course, they had never worried about the possibility that a white president may ignore black people, even in light of Bush's shameful response to Hurricane Katrina, most of the victims of which were blacks. Another comment was that blacks were "lazy" or even intellectually inferior and a black person could not make a competent president. And even a number of educated people brought up poverty, genocide and disease in Africa as a case study to make the case that blacks are biologically inferior. I responded by recommending that they read Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel, in which he explains how Eurasia's endowment of crops and domesticaple animals, east west axis that provided a huge area with similar latitude and climates and natural barriers that divided up Europe into competing nation states -- and not the color of inhabitants skins -- were the reason for why certain peoples dominated others in science and war.
But over the past few years, the person who seems to have made the strongest case for changing the perception among Iranians toward blacks has been Obama. As Iranians have learned about Obama and his message, eloquence and success, they have begun to see in him the embodiment of their own dreams. These days, every Iranian I talk to who currently lives in Iran or elsewhere is ecstatic about Obama's message of change. Young Iranians in Diaspora have in fact come up with a slogan that rhymes with Obama -- "Ou ba mast" -- which means "he's with us!"
People who live in oppressive states like Iran have seen the United States' faults over the past eight years and want to see the country that they have always seen as the symbol of freedom and opportunity to become both strong and humble. In Obama's message and personal story, they see that prospect. And as I talk to Iranians about American politics on a daily basis, I have found new reasons to be proud of millions of Iranians who seem to have challenged themselves and fundamentally expanded the limits that they had previously set in their minds for blacks. This is an extraordinary development, the impact of which is positively affecting every conversation about blacks in Iran.
Iranians have a long way in fighting bias against their own minorities, such as Azaris, Kurds and Arabs. And Obama presidency will not be an end to global racial bias against blacks. But it will be a start because, when combined with internationalism and friendly policies, it will fundamentally change America's image from arrogant and unabashed to humble and rehabilitated. And when these changes are made with the help of an intelligent and articulate American president who happens to be black, their impact to further eradicate misconceptions about races and ethnicities can be magnificent.