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Africa Friday, 3 April, 1998, 08:16 GMT 09:16 UK
African Americans watch Clinton odyssey
Not just a tour but also a statement of a new US policy
Not just a tour but also a statement of a new US policy
President Clinton's 11-day trip taking in six African countries is being heralded by US spokesmen as marking a significant shift in US foreign policy. It is intended to usher in a new period of US engagement with the continent. This will be good news for the black Americans of African origin - African Americans - whose lobbying groups have long argued for such a shift in emphasis. But Black Americans have traditionally found it difficult to influence US policy towards Africa, as our US Affairs Analyst Jonathan Marcus explains:

President Clinton's trip to Africa was intended to bring the continent in from the margins and onto the mainstream of the US foreign policy agenda. It is being watched closely by many Black American organisations who have long pressed for just such a visit.

They argue that Americans should receive a less stereotyped view of Africa - not just a continent characterised by famine, poverty and ethnic violence. They want the United States to do much more for Africa in terms of investment and assistance. Above all they want the US to pay more attention to Africa's problems.

While Black American politicians played a significant role in Congress in passing sanctions legislation against apartheid South Africa, the Black lobby has not been equally successful in turning the gaze of successive Administrations towards Africa.

Other lobbies

There has been no African lobby to match the influence of Irish Americans say, or the pro-Israel lobby of the Jewish community. This is despite the fact that a significant proportion of Black Americans - quite apart from their numbers - are what might broadly be termed as middle class; affluent and educated and therefore seemingly well able to air their views.

The explanation for this paradox stems in part from the Black experience in the United States and the fight for civil rights. Black Americans have traditionally been forced to invest their lobbying power in furthering their own domestic fight for equality.

Studies show that even middle class Blacks still feel at a disadvantage compared to their white colleagues. And as President Clinton's dialogue on race so amply demonstrates, the battle for racial equality in America is by no means over.

Theatre of superpower rivalry

Another problem for Black lobbying groups is the very marginality of Africa for US foreign policy. During the Cold War, Africa was merely seen as a theatre for superpower rivalry. Once the Cold War was over, other problems such as Middle East peace, the Balkans and the Asia economic crisis have all dominated the President's time.

They have also had to contend with the fact that the prevailing image of Africa in the public mind was that of chaos and crisis - not of opportunity and progress. But this trip could go some way to changing such images.

Many Black Americans have a fascination with their roots - however hard it may be for many of them, due to the brutal dislocation of slavery - to identify with a particular African country or social grouping.

The growth of African-American studies at colleges has helped to foster such an interest. And one product of Mr Clinton's African odyssey could be a renewed self-confidence for America's growing Africa lobby.

Links to more Africa stories are at the foot of the page.


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