Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Cultural Competence and the Election of Barack Obama

When historians, political scientists, and sociologists reflect on the election of Barack Obama as 44th President of the United States, and when Americans of all ages, backgrounds, and political views do so, we should recall that his election starkly demonstrated the power and implications of cultural competence. President-Elect Obama demonstrated what cultural competence is, how it functions, and the potential that it carries.

Barack Obama is culturally competent. By that, I mean he is able to do more than recognize cultural differences, but is able to relate to people in ways that transcend our cultural difference without minimizing them, exaggerating them, or viewing them as threats to himself or our nation. In the face of cynicism, criticism, skepticism, and outright appeals to jingoism, President-Elect Obama personifies cultural competence in all its shades of meaning.

Let no one forget that Obama is competent handling the social construct of race. His competence should not be merely attributed to his biracial identity as the son of a Kenyan black man and Kansas white woman. Biracial identity is neither a guarantee of competence about diversity, nor an impediment to it.

Obama's competence extends also to handling generational, ability, and experience differences. More than any other contender during the campaign, Barack Obama harnessed the genius, energy, and hope of people of every generation, skill set, and history.

Obama also is different from every other contender by the way he blended existing and emerging technological resources. He took the street savvy of a community organizer and yoked it to the universality of Internet and social networking. In doing so, President-Elect Obama demonstrated his ability to attract people with divergent skills to achieve a feat that can only be termed historic.

All of these factors should be carefully studied, discussed, and debated by serious people, especially those of us responsible for evaluating and choosing leaders. Unfortunately, most organizations rarely do more than give lip service to the skills that Obama has displayed with elegant effectiveness. Despite what they say, most leadership selection committees put more emphasis on what candidates have done than on what skills they have for working in transformational ways with people from different identities, skills, and generations. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that their organizations merely continue age old inequities rather than heal them.

Every leader must cope with the certainty of unpredictability. No one can predict how well President-Elect Obama will lead, how much cooperation he will receive, and how he will respond to unforeseeable challenges. What is clear, however, is that Obama has demonstrated competence in addressing change, differences, and managing change and differences in ways that are proactive and productive.

It is equally clear, at least to observers who are culturally competent, that the people who were defeated by President-Elect Obama never demonstrated anything close to his skill in negotiating cultural differences. Senator John McCain and Governor Sarah Palin openly campaigned in ways that were culturally insensitive at best, if not divisive. Their campaign, like the campaigns of the other presidential candidates from both major parties, focused on identifying and using differences as tools for dividing people, not bringing different people together.

It remains to be seen what the Republican Party will learn and what it will do from the lessons it draws from the Obama victory. From the time of Richard Nixon and George Wallace, the GOP has deliberately worked to exploit fears and distrust while attempting to incite hostility by working class white Americans against persons of color, immigrants, and persons who are branded "different." During the 2004 presidential election and 2006 Congressional mid-term elections, the GOP demonstrated its continued reliance on the tactics of Nixon and Wallace. That reliance (which could also be described as an obsession) is demonstrated by the "culture wars" strategy employed and embraced by the GOP in this and previous elections.

Barack Hussein Obama (yes, I used his middle name)openly defied and brilliantly defeated the "culture war" approach to politics with a multi-racial, multi-cultural, and trans=generational army of people from divergent political, social, economic, educational, and sexual backgrounds. For two generations, the Grand Ole Party held itself out as the exclusive bastion of American values, and rejected appeals from moderate Republicans to treat people who are different as equals rather than suspicious. It remains to be seen whether Republican leaders will understand how their arrogant divisiveness and disdain for diversity (championed by Richard Nixon and George Wallace in 1968 and culminating in the presidencies of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush) has been repudiated by Americans by the Obama landslide victory.

Obama and Bush are very different people, produced by drastically different political constituencies, and with diametrically different views of the world. Obama is intellectually curious. Bush is notoriously not so. Obama respects those who disagree with him. Bush denigrates them. Obama came to power because he enjoys building coalitions, much in the way one does as a community organizer. Bush came to power based on his pedigree and used cronyism as justification for what he did as chief executive.

Cultural competence distinguished Barack Obama during the presidential campaign more than anything else. That quality will be a powerful asset as he leads the United States to address existing and emerging challenges. Whatever the future holds for the President-Elect and the United States he must lead, it is safe to say that he is more than another leader. Barack Hussein Obama, President-Elect of the United States, is a new kind of leader for a new kind of United States. None of us should ignore this reality.

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