"Obama didn’t fail," the artist and activist Forest Whitaker told an audience at the World Economic Forum in Davos this morning. “He changed the psyche of the nation and in some ways the world. To act like we haven’t had great progress isn’t true.”
The UNESCO special envoy is at the annual conference to talk about his work in peace-building and conflict resolution in Mexico, Africa and the United States. But in a televised interview with broadcast journalist Zeinab Badawi, the conversation turned to race and inequality in America, both in film and on the streets.
“A young black teenager is 20 times more likely to be killed than his white counterpart,” Whitaker said, but it's not a failure he believes falls to Barack Obama's eight years in office. For black people in the US, he argues, "we came to America as slaves. To go from that to Obama – it’s been a long journey. And there’s still a way to go."
And what about America's new president? Will the course towards equality remain steady for black Americans and other minorities after incoming President Donald Trump takes Obama’s place in the Oval Office? Whitaker takes a practical view: “I can’t be optimistic based on some of the statements that have been made. But we have to come to the table and find common ground. We have to push the agenda.”
Whitaker is no stranger to activism, or to pushing the agenda. He is the founder of the Whitaker Peace & Development Initiative, an organization that supports young people in becoming peace-builders in their communities. He is also the co-founder and chair of the International Institute for Peace.
As America enters a new and uncertain political era, Whitaker believes true social harmony will lie in the hands of the people. “I’m hopeful that we’ll be able to be a nation that is united. There are those who doubt we’re going to move forward in a positive way, but we have to try. If it doesn’t happen, then people have to stand up and make their voices heard.”