By Earl Ofari Hutchinson
New America Media
GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney was asked during the 2008 GOP presidential primary campaign what he thought about diversity. He gave the stock answer that he supported it in government and corporations. A little later, NBC talk show host Jay Leno, in a late night interview, asked him whether his administration would be truly inclusive. Romney tossed out the pithy one liner that he believed discrimination is wrong.
Romney managed to answer the question that has nagged every GOP presidential candidate (and president) since Nixon without saying anything. But it’s not a politician’s words that count. It’s his or her action and public record. Bush managed to blunt the hard criticism that a GOP White House is almost always a virtually all-white, rich, and male club with his arguably breakthrough appointments of Colin Powell (Secretary of State), Condoleezza Rice (National Security Advisor and Secretary of State), and Alberto Gonzales (Attorney General).
But, a Romney White House could roll back the Bush clock. Start with his record on diversity as Massachusetts governor. When it came to appointing minorities and women to judicial posts, his record was atrocious. The Massachusetts Women’s Bar Association repeatedly lambasted him for his nearly exclusive white male statehouse. Romney, partly in response to the public pounding, and partly with an eye on a presidential run where he knew his state record on diversity would be closely scrutinized, made a slew of appointments of minorities and women to the state bench in his last year in office.
Romney’s successor Deval Patrick, a Democrat, and the state’s first African-American governor, wasted no time in knocking Romney for his blatant race and gender blind spot on appointments. In Patrick’s inaugural address, he made it clear that he would make diversity and inclusion a huge part of his administration.
Romney, now that he’s launched his presidential bid and is the presumptive front-runner for the Republican nomination, can’t duck the diversity issue. The parade of Romney race-tinged gaffes that include the metaphorical reference to hanging Obama, a joke about Obama’s birth certificate, the use of the racially offensive word “tar baby” to describe a public works project, and an animal reference while posing with an African-American doesn’t tag Romney as a racist. He apologized or pleaded ignorance in every case. But it does touch off warning bells on his position on race.
Then there are the questions about Romney’s faith. For more than a century, the Mormons clung tightly to a well-documented, race-tinged dogma that blacks were an inferior race, could not be priests, could not serve on missions or be married in the Temple. Mormons were hardly the only religious group that hid behind the Old Testament curse of Ham as a cover for their blatant racial bigotry. Many evangelical fundamentalists did the same. The Mormons scrapped it only after church leaders said they got a revelation from God in 1978. That was a decade and a half after the great civil rights battles of the 1960s.
The Mormon leaders claim that they have convincingly junked their racist past, and tout their much-publicized genealogical research on African-American families, their aggressive missions in Africa, and the handful of blacks that serve in the important church body known as the Quorums of the Seventy. But Mormon leaders have also rejected calls for the church to apologize for its century-plus defense of that past.
Mormon efforts at change are certainly commendable, but that doesn’t lessen suspicion that the attitudes of rank-and-file Mormons toward race and gender issues aren’t still frozen in time. The inherent social conservatism in the Mormon faith and practices further deepens the suspicion that a Mormon in the White House would hardly be prone to making diversity the watchword of his administration.
In opinion polls, nearly half of all Americans have an unfavorable view of Mormons. They still see the faith as clannish, cultish, polygamy practicing, and far out of the mainstream of American religious traditions. They are rightly troubled that Romney’s faith and conservative politics may be so enmeshed that a Mormon could not keep church and state matters separate.
Romney bristles at this notion. In a speech in December 2007, he tried to put the fears to rest that his faith would not be an issue in his governing. Romney is right: faith shouldn’t be the determining issue in whether he’s fit to be president. And an irony is that in some polls African-American Protestants are actually less hostile to Mormons than hardline white evangelicals. Still, Romney’s actions, not his words or poll numbers, on diversity are and should be a determining issue as to whether he is fit to be president.
His record and words are anything but promising on this. And that’s more than simply a matter of faith.