Dick Polman: Diversity training for GOP
Let’s wave bye-bye to July with a thigh-slapping salute to Curt Clawson, the tea party’s latest contribution to the U.S. Congress. Rarely has a Republican white guy evinced such cluelessness about Americans of a different race.
You might know this story already; if not, get ready to cringe.
Clawson came to Washington earlier this year, courtesy of a special election in a southwest Florida district previously helmed by Trey Radel, who quit his seat after being convicted on a cocaine rap. The district is ruby-red Republican, festooned with gated communities and laced with tea-party anger. Clawson, a businessman with no elective experience, was hailed by the Tea Party Express and local allies as their kind of guy, an “outsider” who loves the Constitution.
But Clawson might also benefit from some diversity training. Early last week, as a member of a House subcommittee, he noticed that the two people at the witness table had funny names — funny, at least by the standards of white Republican enclaves — and that they were non-white to boot. So naturally he made an assumption, the same kind of assumption that many tea-partyers still make about Barack Obama: Funny name plus non-white equals not American.
The India-surnamed witnesses were Nisha Biswal, assistant U.S. Secretary of State for South and Central Asia, and Arun Kumar, assistant U.S. Secretary for Global Markets at the Department of Commerce. They were introduced that way, at the start of the subcommittee session. But here’s how Clawson regaled them - and he simply would. not. stop:
“I’m familiar with your country, I love your country. And I’m hopeful that the new change in regime, that the future and the promise and the land of opportunity of India can finally become so. And I understand the problem of so many languages and so many cultures and so many histories all rolled up into one. So just as your capital is welcome here to produce good-paying jobs in the U.S., I’d like our capital to be welcome there and there to be freedom of capital so that both sides are on the same territory. And I ask cooperation and commitment and priority from your government in so doing. Can I have that?”
A long silence, as awkward confusion reigned in the room. And seriously, it’s worth watching the video just to see Kumar’s reaction. He looks like he’s ready to bust a gut laughing. Biswal, on the other hand, smoothly engaged Clawson, as befitting her State Department training. She replied, “I think your question is to the Indian government. We certainly share your sentiment, and we will certainly advocate that on behalf of the U.S.”
Which was a very diplomatic way of saying, “Shape up, you cluelessly racist dolt.”
Yeah, I know, anyone can make a dumb mistake. (Clawson has since apologized.) I suppose that anyone can look at two Indian-American officials of dark skin color and somehow assume that they’re not real Americans. But, as we know, that kind of assumption is far more commonly made in certain ideological sectors of the Republican party, where non-white Americans are conspicuously scarce.
And, as commentator Peter Beinart has smartly observed, it’s highly unlikely that Clawson “would have mistaken an Irish-American for a representative of the government of Ireland, or a German-American for a representative of the government of Germany” - because all too often in our nation’s history “whiteness is still a proxy for being American.”
Republicans like Clawson definitely need to get out more, and bone up on American diversity. And I’d add Mitt Romney to that list. Check out this July quote, from Democratic strategist Donna Brazile: “Go back to 2012, and Mitt Romney showed up at the NAACP after he secured the nomination, because he had to. He came up to me and said, ‘Hi, Gwen’....Poor thing. He didn’t know.”
He thought she was Gwen Ifill, the PBS host. Apparently all black women look alike. But hey, let’s cut Mitt a break. At least he didn’t assume that they’re citizens of Africa.
Dick Polman is the national political columnist at NewsWorks/WHYY in Philadelphia.