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Black PM is possible, says new book

16 Mar 2010

A 'deepening tide of tolerance' means the UK has the necessary preconditions for the emergence of a black prime minister, according to a new book published this week through a major collaboration between Harvard University and The University of Manchester.

“Age of Obama” was written by renowned Harvard Professor Robert Putnam, author of the best-selling Bowling Alone, together with Manchester’s  Professor Ed Fieldhouse and the Guardian journalist Tom Clark. It is published by Manchester University Press this week.

The findings emerge in survey data which tracks 50 years of attitudes on both sides of the Atlantic -  including feelings about mixed marriages, working for a black boss and voting for non-white politicians.

They show that racial prejudice in Britain and America has been declining during that period – thanks to the greater tolerance of younger generations.

“Despite the continuing racial divides in America, we have seen how a slow and deepening tide of tolerance made possible the election of a black President a little over a year ago,” said Professor Putnam.

“In addition, a new generation of black politicians in America – that goes well beyond Barack Obama – has emerged, and is starting to seize the opportunities this change presents.

“As we approach the UK General Election, the minimal representation of non-whites in the House of Commons and in local government will clearly continue to be a significant bar to the arrival of a British Obama.

“But the most obvious question for the British is whether the Obama phenomenon could happen in the UK.”

Despite some caveats – especially the small though growing black British political class - the answer, according to the researchers is affirmative.

Professor Ed Fieldhouse added: “The good news is that in terms of the underlying attitudes of the majority, Britain  is  becoming more tolerant, just as they are in the United States.”

Other points to be brought out by the book include:

  • Despite all the benefits of diversity, there are sometimes strains on community life on both sides of the Atlantic, particularly when exploited by blunt-edged interventions by politicians.
  • Diversity seems to trigger more discomfort in the US than Britain. This may be because the salience of race- as opposed to class - is more marked in American thinking.
  • British ethnic minorities are far less geographically segregated than their counterparts in the USA.
  • Material disadvantages of African Americans are concentrated through a ghettoisation of many in their community. However, this spatial concentration has given them a power base from which they enjoy political representation on a scale unmatched in Britain.
  • While black-white racial disparities appear to be greater in the US than in Britain, probably because of the long legacy of slavery, by contrast, America seems to be doing somewhat better than Britain in integrating new immigrants, probably because of America’s greater experience as “a nation of immigrants.”

Reviews of Age of Obama
'This important book investigates whether diversity weakens community. It draws on a wealth of evidence from Britain and America with encouraging signs of a "growing tide of tolerance.’
David Willetts, leading Conservative thinker and politician.

‘[Putnam et al] have done it again – pouring evidence instead of polemic onto one of the trickiest and most controversial issues of the decade. For the first time, they bring together sophisticated UK-US comparisons, neighbourhood effects, cross-generational and cross-time analyses to untangle the subtle effects of increasing ethnic heterogeneity on communities. A balanced and thought-provoking book, bound to attract much attention.’
David Halpern, Director of Research, Institute for Government, and former Chief Analyst in the Prime Minister's Strategy Unit (2001-2007)"

‘There are precious few in-depth studies of recent large-scale ethnic and religious mixing in western societies.  This comparison of the USA and the UK, both with their own examples of 'the world in one city', makes for fascinating reading and a better and deeper understanding of the situation.  It is one of the best books on one of the most important social issues I have come across for quite some time’.
Ken Newton, Emeritus Professor of Comparative Politics, University of Southampton

Notes for editors

Age of Obama is published by Manchester University Press. Review copies are available.

Robert Putnam is Peter & Isabel Malkin Professor of Public Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and Visiting Professor at The University of Manchester. His book Bowling Alone made waves round the world, by charting the withering of America’s community life.

Ed Fieldhouse is Director of The University of Manchester’s Institute for Social change.

Tom Clark is a Leader Writer for the Guardian.

The study draws on collaborative research by a distinguished team from Harvard and Manchester Universities, carried out under the auspices of SCHMI – Social Change: A Harvard - Manchester Initiative.

The comparative academic papers, which provided much of the raw material for Putnam’s book are being made available at

For media enquiries contact:

Mike Addelman
Media Relations
Faculty of Humanities
The University of Manchester
0161 275 0790
07717 881567

For review copies contact:
Bethan Hirst
Publicity Executive
Manchester University Press
Tel: 0161 275 2310