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Britain's equality chief: Obama will only prolong America's racial divide

Trevor Phillips, Britain's most influential black figure, has warned that the election of Barack Obama as US president would prolong rather than end America's racial divide.

The chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission accused Mr Obama of "ruthless cynicism" and said he would not be "the harbinger of a post-racial America" if he becomes the country's first black president.

Mr Phillips' surprise attack on the favourite to win the Democratic Party nomination comes in an article for Prospect magazine published today. Mr Phillips dismissed attempts by the Obama camp to hail their man as a "new JFK", predicting he could emulate the "charm, skill and ruthless cynicism" of Bill Clinton.

Mr Phillips believed there were two types of influential black figures in America, both of whom keep race at the heart of US life -- "challengers", whose ambitions are limited to winning piecemeal concessions for blacks, and "bargainers", who do not make an issue of "white racism" if whites do not play the race card against them. He described Mr Obama as a "natural bargainer".

"In truth, Obama may be helping to postpone the arrival of a post-racial America and I think he knows it," Mr Phillips wrote. "If he wins, the cynicism may be worth it to him and his party. In the end he is a politician and a very good one: his job is to win elections." He backed the argument of Shelby Steele, who said in his biography of Mr Obama: "If he fulfils the hopes of whites, he must disappoint blacks – and vice versa."

Mr Phillips said he would be surprised if Mr Obama saw off Hillary Clinton to win the Democrats' nomination, as many commentators expect as she struggles to stay in the race. He conceded that it might happen.

The broadcaster and former Labour politician wrote: "For the black underclass and beyond, Obama may be the latest messiah, but there is anecdotal evidence that, where blacks have prospered to the extent that they are grimly competing for jobs and property with whites, they don't buy 'Obamania'. I would guess this is because the people who actually experience just how far America remains from post-racial harmony are those blacks who work with whites."

Mr Phillips said the guilt associated with slavery is an everyday reality for white America. "But if Obama can succeed, then maybe they can imagine that [Martin Luther] King's post-racial nirvana has arrived. A vote for Obama is a pain-free negation of their own racism. So long as they don't have to live next door to him; Obama has yet to win convincingly in white districts adjacent to black communities."

Explaining why there is no British "Obama figure", Mr Phillips said the number of blacks in Britain was proportionately one sixth that of America and so does not produce the same range of talents. He added that British whites do not bear the stain of slavery in the way US whites do.

Mr Phillips' scepticism about Mr Obama contrasts with the support for him voiced by David Lammy, the black Skills minister. He has described Mr Obama as "charming and intelligent but refreshingly able to laugh at himself" and compared him to presidents Roosevelt and Kennedy.

*David Cameron challenged Gordon Brown to US-style televised debates between party leaders at the next election, saying they had caught the public's imagination in the presidential race. Mr Brown was dismissive, saying America did not have a weekly session of Prime Minister's Questions.

For rolling comment on the US election visit: independent.co.uk/campaign08

To read Trevor Phillip's Prospect magazine article on Barack Obama, click here