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I'll take Latino for 800, Alex

Posted by Francie Latour  September 18, 2012 06:10 PM

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These days, if you are running for the office of President of the United States, it is a real drag to be white.

So says Republican nominee Mitt Romney, who has taken on the distinct color of freefall following the release of a secretly recorded video showing him communing with his high-net-worth kindred at a private fundraiser in Florida.

In the video, Romney laid out a political bottom line that has been scorching the blogosphere. It also doubles nicely as the character synopsis for Randolph and Mortimer Duke in the 1983 Hollywood hit Trading Places. To recap: roughly half of Americans are entitlement-seeking freeloaders who have never seen a bootstrap.

"My job is not to worry about those people," Romney said, over the din of wine glasses kept full by waiters in silver ties. "I'll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives."

It's not clear why Romney's brand of robotic cynicism is so surprising; his disinterest in and disconnect with ordinary people has lurked beneath the surface of his campaign -- and not very far from the surface -- all along. What's throwing me for a loop is Romney's feeble grasp of math.

There have been 43 men elected to the office of President of the United States; 42 of them have been white, and one has not been. Given that, I'm confused by the other piece of political calculus Romney had to share with his audience. Which is, in essence: This whole election thing would be a heck of a lot easier if I could just get my ethnic on.

"My dad, as you probably know, was the governor of Michigan and was the head of a car company," he told the crowd. "But he was born in Mexico ... and had he been born of Mexican parents, I'd have a better shot at winning this." Romney went on. "But he was unfortunately born to Americans living in Mexico. He lived there for a number of years. I mean, I say that jokingly, but it would be helpful to be Latino."

(I'm taking that to mean, it would be helpful to be Latino until election day, after which Romney presumably would like to go back to being white. Otherwise you have to do that really annoying time-travel thing where you're a Mexican-American kid in 1960s Michigan, and statistically your father's chances of becoming a corporate titan and governor of Michigan would be somewhat more remote. Also, once you got back to the present, you might have to ask your father to voluntarily deport himself, which would be tough.)

On one level, we can take Romney at his word: It is laughable to say that his father was unfortunate in almost any way. On the other hand, there is nothing funny about a presidential candidate in a rapidly diversifying country offering up a notion of ethnicity or race that is so ahistorical, so divorced from reality and so downright bizarre. In a lot of ways, it is Geraldine Ferraro remixed and four years removed: It would come in handy for Romney not to be white right now, just as Ferraro declared that it came in very handy for Obama not to be white in his bruising 2008 primary against Hillary Clinton. (It was enough for Bill Clinton and John F. Kennedy and John Quincy Adams to be Ivy League graduates, legal scholars and sitting senators or governors. But not for Obama. Despite being all those things, he had to be black, too, and boy wasn't he lucky.)

Last month, a study published on the distribution of grants and scholarships to US students by race found that, contrary to popular myths about minorities having an unfair advantage, financial aid was awarded to students in roughly the same proportion as their representation in the student body overall. When it comes to private scholarship money and merit-based grants specifically, white students receive about three times as much as students of color, according to the study.

It's a report that got little media attention, but goes a long way toward debunking some of the flawed and hostile race logic peddled by Ferraro then and by Romney now. Racial and ethnic identities are not tickets that function to get you into college, into a better job or into the White House. They also are not flavors that you sample or boxes that you check. If you'd like to be Latino now, realize that you also would have needed to be Latino at many other career junctures when being Latino would have been a distinct and possibly life-altering disadvantage.

It's not being white that makes Romney unlucky. It's his hologram affect, his doubling-down advisors, his vague policy pronouncements, his position as challenger to an incumbent and possibly his inability to do for his fundraiser what Ryan Reynolds managed to do for his wedding to Blake Lively: keep it private.

"I say that jokingly," Romney said about being Latino, although it's safe to say that if he loses, he doesn't have a bright future as a comedian. That's a shame, because these days, when  we're told over and over that we've achieved equality and then some, that things are seriously getting out of whack because people of color now have all the breaks, comedy may be one of the only forums left where uncomfortable truths about race, ethnicity and advantage can be spoken.

"Seriously, if you're not white, you're missing out because this [expletive] is thoroughly good," the controversial comedian Louis C.K. said in a bit from his 2008 stand-up show "Chewed Up." "Let me be clear, by the way -- I'm not saying that white people are better. I'm saying that being white is clearly better. Who could even argue? If it was an option, I would re-up every year."

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Francie Latour writes about race, gender, ethnicity, and cultural identity. She’s written about everything from working-mom guilt to black Barbies as a contributor to The Boston Globe, where she worked for 11 years as an investigative reporter and features writer. More »

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