Ethnic minority leaders: the historical precedents

Barack Obama’s election is undoubtedly a historic moment for the US, but it got me thinking whether other countries had politicians from minority groups whose rise was equally extraordinary, or whether this really was American exceptionalism. In trying to make such comparisons, you first need to try and specify what makes Obama’s victory so remarkable in general terms. I’d say it is the combination of three things. Firstly, it’s the democratic election of an ‘outsider’. Secondly, that that outsider comes from an ethnic minority that has been until recently long been marginalised and ridiculed. Thirdly, the politician is clearly distinctive to anyone who sees or hears them: they can’t ‘pass’ as a member of the majority group.

I’ve limited myself to more or less democratic systems for the obvious reason that in a non-democratic system, minorities can rise to leadership for many reasons other than their electoral success: kings, for example, can inherit the throne (James I, George I), conquer (Canute) or marry into the royal family (William III). As another variant, a political system can be rigged to ensure the rule of an ethnic minority group (as in Apartheid-era South Africa).

Obama’s significance in the US is not simply that he’s from an ethnic minority; after all, almost all ethnic groups in the US are minorities, and soon even whites will be. It’s that he comes from an ethnic minority that has been oppressed and derided for centuries. You might argue for the Scots and the Welsh being ethnic minorities within the UK (they’re certainly cultural minorities), but that doesn’t make the election of Gordon Brown or Lloyd George anything like as remarkable. There’s more of an argument for an earlier period in Britain when Scots really were despised outsiders, but then you’re getting back to a pre-democratic time. (The Earl of Bute may have been jeered at as a Scot, but it’s hard to argue that an earl is ever really oppressed). On the other hand, I think an ethnically ‘Irish’ Prime Minister would still be a noteworthy development for the UK, given the troubled history of that minority group.

Counting only those coming from marginalised and despised groups also eliminates some of the other possible comparisons. French-Canadians, such as Pierre Trudeau, don’t count. Nicholas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel are both outsiders (Sarkozy as the son of an immigrant and also having Jewish ancestry, Merkel as an ‘Ossi’), but these differences aren’t as socially and culturally important as that between black and white in the US. Alberto Fujimori of Peru is certainly from a very visible minority, but as far as I know Japanese Peruvians aren’t at the bottom of the social heap.

That leaves me with two parallels to Obama (though if anyone can think of more, I’d be interested to hear). One is Evo Morales of Bolivia, who claims to be the first Amerindian president. (The controversy about whether he is really the first shows some of the difficulties of deciding who counts as belonging to an ethnic minority). The other is British: Benjamin Disraeli.

Disraeli became Prime Minister at a time when practising Jews had only just been allowed to become MPs. He was a convert to Christianity, which allowed him to enter the House of Commons earlier. But although he was not religiously a Jew, he was certainly seen as ethnically one and suffered much hostility as result. Nor did he make any attempt to ‘pass’ as non-Jewish, but was noted for his ‘exotic’ dress and manner. In terms of implausible leaders, I’d say Disraeli certainly measures up to Obama.

Disraeli’s example also shows two more things. One is that the success of an ethnic minority leader doesn’t mean that prejudice against his or her ethnic group disappears. Disraeli didn’t lead to the end of British anti-semitism (I don’t know whether it even had much of a temporary effect), and Obama won’t lead to the end of prejudice against blacks. But the other, perhaps more significant thing, is that Disraeli had no Jewish successors: there hasn’t been another Jewish prime Minister and the next Jewish party leader was Michael Howard, more than a century later.

All this suggests that concentrating on the first ‘outsider’ of whatever particular kind to become leader may be misleading as a sign of enlightened attitudes. Many political systems that are clearly prejudiced as a whole (against particular ethnic groups, classes or women) can nevertheless allow exceptional members of such groups to rise to the top. The question isn’t so much whether other systems would allow a black politician to become Prime Minister/President etc: it’s whether they would allow a black politician with Obama’s exceptional skills to become leader. I think, at least in the UK (I’m less sure about other European nations) they would. As Disraeli shows, it’s not only in America…

Statistical appendix

As an extra, this is a rough comparison of the US and UK in terms of relative numbers of ‘black’ politicians (although the figures aren’t directly comparable, since the UK figures tend to put black and Asian politicians together). In 2007 the US had 30 black members of congress out of 535 senators/representatives (7.1%) and African-Americans made up 12.3% of the population. This means that African-Americans have about 58% of the representation they ‘should have’ in an entirely representative system. In the UK, there are 15 Black/Asian MPs out of 646 (2.3%) and ethnic minorities form 7.5% of population, which means that minorities have about 31% of the expected representation. However, the UK looks to be catching up fast: the Guardian article I cite suggests that after the next election there will be 25 or more Black/Asian MPs in the next election (3.9%). This still leaves ethnic minorities under-represented (52% of ‘balanced’ numbers), but noticeably less so. (For comparison, there are less than 40% of the women there should be in the UK and less than 30% in the US).


5 thoughts on “Ethnic minority leaders: the historical precedents

    • Chris,

      Thanks for telling me about Juarez: I hadn’t heard about him before, let alone known that Mussolini was named after him. (I’d freely admit that my knowledge of South and Central American history is extremely limited: one of the advantages of blogging is that I can learn more about history myself).


  1. I’m not sure I buy the parallel between Disraeli and Obama. By this logic, shouldn’t we consider Obama the US’s 1st Muslim President, since many people think of him as Muslim (despite his professed Christianity)?


    • The parallels of Disraeli and Obama aren’t exact, of course; one basic difference is that the route to the top is different in a parliamentary and a presidential system. I think that as a result Disraeli was able to get away with an exoticism that Obama has desperately tried to avoid. But there are interesting similarities in the way that one of the marks of successful modern states is that they can allow some talented outsiders to the top while still keeping an overall class/race/sex bias. Indeed, arguably that’s always been a characteristic of successful ruling classes: they know how to make use of the talents of a few outsiders, whether it’s Cicero, Einhard, Thomas Cromwell or Margaret Thatcher, to preserve the system. The details of Obama’s rise may be unique to the US, but I don’t think the possibility of such a rise is. As to other forms of being an ‘outsider’, Linda Colley has an interesting take on the sex/class/education aspect of who gets to the top in the US and UK.


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