Jeb Bush has a serious problem with ethnicity and multiculturalism. And this problem is more serious than it first appears.
The Republican presidential candidate's rhetoric tells the story.
In 1994, when Bush ran for governor of Florida the first time, he was asked what he would do for African-Americans if elected. He said: "It's time to strive for a society where there's equality of opportunity, not equality of results. So I'm going to answer your question by saying: probably nothing."
When he ran for governor again in 1998, Bush showed moments of tolerance. He softened his references to blacks, and he befriended T. Willard Fair, president and CEO of the Urban League of Greater Miami. Together, they established a charter school in mostly black Liberty City.
"Republicans have ignored the black voters of this state,'' Bush said during a 1998 debate. "And I was part of that. I was wrong."
He won the election. Later, no longer having to campaign, he said: "The best part of living in Florida is the diversity of our people and our communities. Being governor, I'm able to experience that diversity more than most people, but it's accessible to all of us no matter where we live. It's really our greatest strength as a state."
Today, Bush is campaigning for president. Many supporters hoped he had matured beyond the kind of gaffes that contributed to his 1994 loss.
The descent into demagoguery started in August when he went to the U.S.-Mexico border to tout his immigration plan. He used the derogatory term "anchor babies" to describe Hispanics who use the law to gain citizenship for their kids. When challenged, Bush said he was actually referring to Asians. Another group offended.
The descent continued at an Iowa diner when a woman asked Bush what he would do to help refugees and immigrants integrate into American society and "empower them to become Americans."
Knowing that the GOP base fears "creeping multiculturalism," Bush delivered: "We should not have a multicultural society. America is so much better than every other country because of the values that people share. It defines our national identity, not race or ethnicity, not where you come from. When you create pockets of isolation, and in some cases the assimilation process is retarded because it's slowed down — it's wrong. It limits people's aspirations."
At another stop in Iowa, a white man gave Bush another chance to demagogue.
"Look around this room," the man said. "How many black faces do you see? How are you going to include them and get them to vote for you? Because I don't think you are going to win without them."
Bush's race antenna should have beeped at the man's use of "black faces" and "them."
Aware of his falling poll numbers, Bush plunged ahead: "Great question. As it relates to African-Americans, there is a way to do this. Republicans get 4 to 7 percent maybe of the African-American vote for president. Those are kind of the numbers that I hear about. If you double that, you are still at a low number, but you win in places like Ohio and Virginia. And we should make that case, because our message is one of hope and aspiration. It isn't one of division and 'get in line,' and 'we'll take care of you with free stuff.' Our message is one that is uplifting, that says: 'You can achieve earned success … we're on your side."
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It is difficult for minority voters to take Bush seriously.
After all, what does this person of inherited wealth and automatic political power know about "equality of opportunity" and "earned success"? He was handed opportunity, "free stuff," on a silver platter. And he has never had to get in line for anything.
A few days ago, Bush did it again, this time disparaging Native Americans and others who want the Washington Redskins to change the team's name. Many Indians view "redskin" as a racial epithet.
Why is he insensitive to such matters? What is his real motivation for selectively uttering ethnic insults? Remember, his wife is Mexican, and he spent his early years in Latin America cultivating business ties. He lives in Miami-Dade, which has one of the nation's largest Hispanic populations.
And do not forget that some of the nation's most successful African-American businesses operate in Miami-Dade.
Rational people cannot help but conclude that Bush's insults are politically calculated. He is cynically appealing to the darkest corners of the GOP base, consciously manipulating bigotry, using racial and ethnic stereotypes as red meat.