Fifty-two years is a short time in the life of a nation. Although I am a bit long in the tooth, I have a hard time considering much that happened while I have been alive as “history.” But Dr. King’s clarion call surely qualifies and this year’s race for the Republican party presidential nomination demonstrates our response to the call has been just as historic. With yesterday’s announcement from Piyush “Bobby” Jindal that he too was throwing his hat into the ring, two things became clear. One, it is a good time to own a hat factory. Two, ethnicity is no longer much of a barrier to power.
Many raised the same point when President Obama became our first African-American commander-in-chief. At that point, however, the argument was incomplete. The president’s election, and certainly his re-election, could also be seen as the triumph of identity politics. Building a coalition of minorities to vote for a minority because he was a minority is not what Dr. King was talking about. Fairly or not, that strategy is how some viewed 2008 and 2012. After the president took the oath, the ferocity of the far right’s reaction to him has dampened the “post-racial” quality of his achievement and, no I am not calling anyone a racist for opposing him. Still, when so many can hate a man you have to wonder if some part of that hate is because he is “different.”.
Which brings us to this year’s GOP field which, God willing, is almost complete. Before discussing the entrants, we need to look at the course they are running. Conventional wisdom holds that a successful candidate must have early “win” in some combination of the first three contests, held in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, as well as the money and organization to compete in the large slate of Super Tuesday primaries. Iowa and New Hampshire are among the whitest states in the union and though I did not check, my guess is the South Carolina GOP is fairly vanilla, too. Money and organization rarely flow to candidates who face obstacles that cannot be overcome. Logically, if ethnicity is a problem to the mostly white voters and donors involved in the GOP’s selection process, someone with an “ethnicity problem” cannot be a serious candidate. Yet, the field is loaded with diversity candidates.
Dr. Ben Carson is the most obvious example but here are some other surprising (to me) notes. Six of the 13 big names have an immediate family member not born in the country; five of those six are children of at least one immigrant. The sixth is Jeb!, who married a Colombian just to prove he deserved the Phi Beta Kappa and Magna Cum Laude honors attached to his Latin American studies degree. George Pataki’s family was all born here, but he is such a mutt that he speaks five languages (English, Spanish, French, German and a touch of Hungarian) just to communicate with them all. Carly Fiorina originally hails from Austin, which makes her presumptively weird, plus she attended high school in Ghana for a while. Mike Huckabee fought to integrate a southern church he pastored. Lindsey Graham may seem white bread but his dad ran a combination pool hall, liquor store and bar, imaginatively named the “Sanitary Cafe,” so it is a good bet young Lindsey knew people from both sides of the track. That just leaves Rick Perry, who as an Aggie is automatically one of the oppressed, and Rand Paul, whose father may be from another planet.
Some of that description is tongue-in-cheek, but the levity should not detract from the main point. While the GOP’s ideas may not be minority-friendly, its candidates could be models for a “melting pot” public service announcement. When Dr. King made his speech, the establishment he spoke to was almost entirely male WASPs. For our younger readers, WASP stands for “White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant”; even the fact that I feel the need to spell out the acronym is a good thing. The fact that a bunch of WASP voters will enthusiastically caucus and vote for such a non-traditional field says that Americans will recognize merit regardless of background.
That good news may be hidden by the Confederate flag story, which was just icing on the cake to the white-cops-killing-black-men stories. A little closer look at even those events show at least forms of progress. Dr. King likely was not a fan of the Confederate flag; the fact that a Tea Party governor in South Carolina is calling for its retirement to the museums and Justice Thomas joined the decision to keep it off Texas license plates has to be heartwarming to him. In Dr. King’s time, Bull Connor and other southern sheriffs routinely got away with conduct that now gets people fired and prosecuted. While it is disturbing that these events are occurring, our reaction to them demonstrate that the vast majority of Americans also know evil when they see it.
None of this is meant to suggest that we have solved the race problem or that Dr. King would still feel at home in the GOP. But I do argue that we have made such progress on race that it is no longer a defining issue. The pressing questions this field of candidates–on both sides of the aisle–must confront are how to deal with economic and educational inequality. If we are as successful at solving those riddles as we have been at removing ethnicity as the decisive factor in a person’s life, my grandchildren will live in a country close to Dr. King’s dream. It is hard to see it any other way when a Piyush is fighting to replace a Barack as the leader of the free world.