Not long before Marco Rubio came out to introduce Mitt Romney on the final night of the Republican convention, some RNC staffers paced the floor carrying stacks of mass-produced “handmade” Hispanics Love Romney signs in search of people to wave them. This was no easy task. First, there were precious few Latinos there. Second, they come in all shades. In the border delegations of Arizona, Texas and New Mexico, there was little to distinguish a Hispanic who “loves” Romney from an Anglo who hates Hispanics. Days earlier, two attendees had been thrown out after pelting a black CNN camerawoman with peanuts and shouting: “This is how we feed the animals.” If the sight of a black woman with a camera could incite that much animus, imagine what rage might ensue if the wrong person were presumed Hispanic.
This was not the only contradiction of the week. The convention started on a split screen. On one side of the Gulf of Mexico, every instrument of the state was being marshaled to prevent Hurricane Isaac from wrecking New Orleans. On the other, speaker after speaker demanded that government get out of the way lest it wreck the economy. Conference organizers were keen to prevent unflattering comparisons with Hurricane Katrina—the last time a privatized response to a public disaster washed up the nation’s race/class dynamics to shame a complacent GOP.
But race was by far the most glaring discrepancy. At times it seemed that the only thing more attractive to Republicans than watching a nonwhite person describe how he or she had overcome huge obstacles to reach the top was coming up with new obstacles to throw in front of the next generation. And so it was that the racial composition of the speakers stood in inverse proportion to that of both the audience and GOP backers as a whole. A poll taken shortly before the convention put black support for Romney at zero, while less than 30 percent of Latinos say they will vote for Romney. By comparison, in 2004 Bush got 11 percent of the black vote, and 44 percent from Latinos. And since blacks and Latinos made up a smaller percentage of voters that year, Bush scraped out a narrow victory.
The lineup reflected the party’s vulnerabilities among women as well. After a primary season in which Republican candidates tried to outdo one another in restricting contraception access and attacking Planned Parenthood, polls show Obama ahead among women, 52 to 36 percent.
In the absence of any substantial policies that women or people of color would support—indeed, quite the opposite—Republicans had little choice but to put their prominent women and people of color front and center by way of proxy. In addition to Rubio, Texas Tea Party senatorial candidate Ted Cruz and Mia Love, the Haitian-American mayor of Saratoga Springs, Utah, key speaking slots were given to Condoleezza Rice, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley (who’s of Indian descent) and New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez. Ann Romney was introduced by Puerto Rico’s first lady, Luce Vale.
To condemn this as cynical choreography would be to miss the point. This is a political convention. Like a microwave chicken dinner, it was made for TV. Fail to curate it, and you end up with Clint Eastwood having a conversation with an invisible president in an empty chair. And then everyone suffers.
Moreover, for all their woes, Republicans do have something to boast about where race is concerned. Of the country’s five nonwhite governors—Haley, Martinez, Brian Sandoval of Nevada, Deval Patrick of Massachusetts and Bobby Jindal of Louisiana—four are Republicans. If, as is likely, Cruz is elected, the GOP will have more Latino senators than the Democrats. This should come as no surprise. There is nothing inherent in the Republicans’ support for rapacious free-market capitalism that insists on racism. Its role is not ideological but electoral. Racism is simply the means by which the GOP wins over a huge section of the white working class—who, in the absence of class politics, feels its whiteness is its sole privilege worth preserving. Racism may be central to the Republicans’ message but not to its meaning.
Equally, there is nothing in the promotion of a nonwhite politician that need pose a challenge to racism, so long as that person works within the existing racial hierarchies and is dedicated to maintaining them. It is clear what this kind of “progress” can do for Republicans. It’s far more difficult to see what’s in it for blacks and Latinos.
Such is the nature of “diversity” in the modern age—a shift from equal opportunities to photo opportunities that eviscerates the struggle against discrimination of their meaning until we are left with institutions that look different but operate in exactly the same way. A method that, like so many, has traveled seamlessly from the corporate to the political world.
Republicans are not alone in this. Obama’s rise was not consistent with a rise in the economic and political fortunes of African-Americans but, rather, aberrant to it. Under the nation’s first black president the economic gap between black and white Americans has grown. One might argue about the extent to which Obama is responsible for that—but one cannot argue about the fact of it.
The trouble with these symbolic advances is not that they are worthless but that in the absence of substantial advances, the symbolism is all too easily manipulated, misunderstood, discounted and disparaged. The result is stasis for those suffering discrimination, cynicism for those combating it and indifference from those trying to preserve it.
The night before Rubio spoke, Martinez took to the podium to introduce Paul Ryan. As she started speaking, one delegate turned to another on the convention floor and said, “We’re into prime time. That’s why the Hispanic is on now.”
“Yeah,” said the other. “The warm-up act.”