During one of his finest moments of ethnic tolerance, Archie Bunker, the All in the Family paterfamilias, pointed out that while his loading dock co-workers, Black Elmo, the lone African-American, and Little Emanuel, the gimpy Puerto Rican, were Americans, only Stretch Cunningham, a fellow WASP, was "your real American."
Well, like it or not, Archie Bunker's ethnic sensibilities are still with us, and they are alive and well. They surface with a vengeance during each presidential election season. The 2004 season is no different.
Consciously or subconsciously, all candidates treat the nation's WASP voting bloc one way and the African-American and Hispanic blocs another way. Sure, blacks and Hispanics are Americans, but WASPs are "your real Americans," as Archie would tell the Meathead, his Polish son-in-law, Michael Stivic.
The cultural implications of the presidential primary system bring the Archie Bunker Paradigm of Americanism into sharp relief. The Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, for example, have the uncanny power to make or break a candidacy. I say "uncanny" because, to my mind, these two events are so white that they are virtually non-American. To find a black in either state, one must conduct an official "Negro sighting" effort on the scale of a National Geographic search for the snail darter.
Few in the press and even fewer politicians seem to care that these two places are white. After all, the results of their balloting are hailed as the "real American" thing _ when voters get up close and personal with the candidates. During the campaigns in the Hawkeye and Granite states, the candidates talk offhandedly about issues important to blacks and Hispanics. Why should they talk about such issues directly when no minorities will be around to hear, when they are talking to "real Americans"?
Now _ with exceptions in parts of the Northwest where few blacks and Hispanics live _ comes the rest of the nation, where blacks and Hispanics matter as registered voters. With Iowa and New Hampshire behind them, the seven remaining Democrats have retooled their messages, and they have added black churches, barbershops, soul food cafes and a few street corners to their speaking circuits.
In South Carolina, where the primary will be held Tuesday, the candidates are talking about issues such as affirmative action, the Confederate flag and racial profiling. Sure, they are are talking about the other issues, too, but they are now emphasizing issues dear to African-Americans. And why not? As much as 50 percent of the Palmetto State's primary electorate will be black.
One indication of the candidates' appreciation for the black vote in South Carolina is that all of them sought the endorsement of Rep. James Clyburn, the state's only African-American member of Congress. Clyburn reminded the candidates that his constituency is unique and should be part of "real America" when he said: "If the economy is so good, who is it good for? Certainly not for the people I represent."
Based solely on the fact that politicians know to approach blacks and Hispanics differently, we should not have an argument about the existence of two Americas.
And do not forget the much-talked-about anger from the 2000 election, when blacks believed, realistically or not, that they were disenfranchised before, during and after the Florida recount fiasco, causing George W. Bush to win out over Al Gore. And do not forget Trent Lott, who said the nation would have been a better place if segregationist Strom Thurmond had become president in 1948. And, please, do not forget Thurmond and the other things we learned about him recently. Blacks certainly have not. In these controversies, they see the imprimatur of Republican Party.
President Bush is apparently aware of this fact. He and his advisers seem to know about the Archie Bunker Paradigm of Americanism _ that we have "Americans" and "your real Americans." Bush's trip to Atlanta to lay a wreath at the gravesite of Martin Luther King was an attempt to acknowledge King as an "American."
But Bush's ploy will have unintended consequences because of the president's own duplicity. Georgia's four-term state Sen. Vincent Fort, who is black, explains: "After Florida and four years of an extreme right-wing agenda, after seeing George W. Bush lay a wreath at the tomb of Martin Luther King Jr. and then turn around and go back to Washington and appoint a (Mississippi judge) Charles Pickering to the federal bench, I think the African-American voter will be energized."
Meanwhile, the Democrats, fully aware of black America's uniqueness, are making themselves available to all areas of the black press to discuss "black issues." They know that Bush's policies and actions have awakened a sleeping giant, and they want to lure that giant to the nation's voting booths in November.
The smartest Democrats know, too, that only someone living the illusion of a "colorblind" America would ignore the wisdom of Archie Bunker: In the real world, Black Elmo and Little Emanuel are not the equal of Stretch Cunningham.