Upon leaving office in 2000, Bill Clinton was keen on having a national conversation on race in America. He eventually did in 2004, but because he was a former president involved in this conversation and not a current president, it had very little effect on the political culture writ large. Neither of the two presidential candidates in 2004 even spoke about race in the narrative we’re used to (i.e., black and white), and with the current news of the “Under-30 crowd’s” intolerance of the use of race in a political campaign, one could easily argue that Martin Luther King’s “Dream” of a color-blind society is on its way to becoming a reality. In my own day-to-day, I’ve noticed that younger folks are more apt to have friends of different ethnicities and are very accepting of cultures that differ from their own. One could credit the growing emphasis on multicultural education in many school curriculums; however, the dry recitation of historical facts, sociological trends, or artistic creations is no substitute for a truly effective gateway into another culture: food.

My daughter and her cohort have benefited from educational events at her school that celebrate the rich diversity of human cultures through sampling of food. Granted, I live in an area where there is a large amount of ethnic diversity, but even among kids who consider themselves generically “white,” exploring the foods of other ethnic background leads them to be more accepting. When the richness of a culture can first be sampled using the taste buds, the nose, the hands, and the eyes, and the mind become more receptive to the more academic stuff. I’m not saying that food is the panacea for racism and intolerance in society, but it has done quite a lot to lessen the notion of difference as “Other.” That’s just academic-speak for saying our identities are often constructed through the differences in others. Depending on how secure your identity is, your view of the “Other” will fall along a spectrum of tolerance. Those whose identity is constructed with the view that the “Other” is something evil, and the antithesis of their being, will often act out to secure their identity by attempting to destroy, or severely wound the “Other.” At its most extreme, this acting out means violence that leads to death. However, the use of the “Other” to reinforce identity isn’t always an exercise in extreme and violent acts.

Politicians since the 1970s have gotten a lot of political mileage out of coded words when talking about race. Republicans, in general, have gotten the most bang out of that buck from the 1970s to 2000. Indeed, Republican consultants have been very creative, and in a Machiavellian way, quite brilliant in crafting code words that play on white resentment in the middle-to-lower-middle class. Richard Nixon talked about “The Silent Majority” as part of his attempt to battle the cultural and political changes demanded by African-Americans, women and gays. Ronald Reagan went after entitlement programs in the 1980s by talking about “Welfare Queens” who picked up their checks in brand new Cadillacs. George H.W. Bush used the face of Willie Horton as the Big Bad who would get out of prison and rape your wife if Democrats got into office. And operatives sympathetic to George W. Bush’s 2000 presidential campaign used John McCain’s adopted daughter (who was originally from Bangladesh) as the subject of a “push-poll” to derail his New Hampshire primary momentum. Calls were made before the South Carolina primary in which the “pollster” asked if McCain supporters would be more or less likely to vote for McCain if they knew he had fathered an illegitimate child who was black. That tactic worked, and McCain lost the South Carolina primary and nomination.

Well, here we are in 2008, and race, while still an issue in the minds of many voters, is not something candidates have to trot out to stir their base. Except for Huckabee’s idiotic statement after the assassination of Benazir Bhutto that we need to build a fence between the U.S. and Mexico to stop Islamic radicals with shoulder-armed rockets from Pakistan from entering the United States, race-baiting politics have been fairly quiet. It could be because of Obama’s win in Iowa, his close second place finish in New Hampshire, and the fact that his campaign stresses unity and not divisiveness – which is resonating among political independents and some Republicans.

I’m doubtful that we’ll ever reach the ideal sketched in King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, mostly because I’m not an idealist. However, I’ll take the constant striving to reach it over the alternative any day of the week. Also, from my (albeit limited) perspective of a family guy who lives in the ethnically diverse Bay Area, I think some of changes I’ve seen in the realm of racial and ethnic tolerance bodes well for the future – especially if the racially tolerant mindset of the so-called “Under-30 crowd” becomes politically dominant.

“Your Racist Friend” They Might Be Giants (Download)