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A minority's role always has a symbolic subtext. Their very presence turns any mundane political occasion into a morality play. Related Gully Coverage

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United States

The Bittersweet Pageantry of Race

by Ana Simo

JANUARY 8, 2001. The bittersweet pageantry of race at the top echelons of American politics abruptly featured the Democrats again last Saturday, after being dominated recently by the Republicans.

One by one, black women and men elected to the House stood up to protest the Florida electoral sham and were silenced by Al Gore's hyperactive gavel and inappropriate bonhomie. Gore's good sport grin and Maxine Waters' (D-Calif.) choking anger summed it all up in a powerful snapshot.

Cattle Call
Blacks, and other minorities, are generally props, some times second tier actors, and occasionally, as with Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell, featured players, but the Washington play is always written, produced, cast, and directed by someone else, the Gores, Bushes, and Clintons of this world.

And the minority's role always has a symbolic subtext. Their very presence turns any mundane political occasion into a morality play, to uplift, berate, assuage, or gratify white Americans, while pacifying the rest.

While the Republican Lincoln first invented the roles, Democrats are old hands in this business, producers of crass plays and even crasser stock characters: Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton fit the bill on many a bad day, and even on some of the good ones. Republicans, who rightly loathe all this Democratic demagoguery, are now following in the same footsteps. For all their Horatio Algerish talk of color-blind individualism, they're every bit as hung up on racial symbolism.

White on Rice
condoleezza riceCondoleezza Rice, in particular, abhors the symbolic role. She became a Republican, she says, among other things, because she wanted to be seen as an individual, not as a member of a minority group—something she says the Democratic Party would not have allowed her. She has a point. The irony is that her individuality as a Republican is precisely enhanced, even guaranteed, by her race. As long as the Republican Party is more than 90 percent white, Rice's blackness will make her unique: she is the black Republican Russia expert.

Before Reagan and the greedy 1980's kicked American liberalism into its well-deserved grave, liberals used to have the lock on minorities, which they always cast as victims. With Clarence Thomas, conservatives acquired their first, very own high-profile minority symbol.

Thomas made conservatives feel very good about themselves: he absolved them (I'm no victim, It's not your fault), surgically separated the heretofore Siamese twins "conservative" and "white" (splendidly, if unwittingly, aided by Anita Hill). And, by being so far to the right, Thomas allowed most Republicans to feel not just inclusive, fair, and sophisticated in matters of race, but positively centrist.

Powell and Rice are, compared to the ideological Thomas, what a Lamborghini is to a Model T. Perhaps that is the natural progression in the grafting of minorities to a major American political party. Thomas proved to conservatives, particularly those on the far right, that they could trust a black man. The more moderate Rice and Powell benefited from that trust. Without the Thomas groundwork, Rice and Powell would not be the Republican superstars they are today.

Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell may, or may not, fare better with George W. Bush and the Republican Party than Maxine Waters and the Black Congressional Caucus with Al Gore and the Democratic Party. But the real story lies in their meaning as black people in a white play. Same show, different theatre.

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