Is Giuliani “White” Enough?

Feb 16, 2007 4:15pm

There’s a lot of talk these days about Senator Barack Obama’s racial identity: "Is Obama black enough?" The question has become a kind of shorthand for a national discussion of the Illinois senator’s mixed-race, international background and what it might mean for him as a presidential candidate. It plunges us into our oldest dilemma–the social construction of race and its meanings in the American polity.
Who counts as "black"–whether measured by the old, ugly concept of "one drop of blood" or the new, indeterminate notion of authenticity of experience–is an issue it seems we’ve never been able to escape. And until our country achieves true racial justice, equality and harmony, I suppose it will always be with us. Race still matters so much in America. That might sound depressing–and it is in many ways–but it’s better to talk about it–to open up our preconceptions and labels and misunderstandings to a searching examination and a freewheeling discussion–than to sweep it all under the rug as somehow too intimate, too painful, too troubling, too rude to raise in a presidential campaign.  Sunshine is the best disinfectant, as Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis liked to say.
Obama himself has clearly thought deeply about these matters, and the excitement surrounding his candidacy stems in part from what he has to say about us as a multi-racial nation with a history scarred–and ennobled–by our struggle over racial difference, power and justice. His remarkable autobiography, Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance, is a deeply moving contribution to this discussion.
But I’d like to flip the question about Obama in a way, just to see what we might come up with here. So, instead of asking, "Is Obama black enough?" how about asking, "Is Rudolph Giuliani white enough?"
Well, just as "blackness" is an identity we invent and impose on each other (a "socially constructed concept," as they say), so is "whiteness." And "whiteness"–or the "lack" of it–might also have important political ramifications.
Rudolph William Louis Giuliani III is a proud Italian-American; both his mom and his dad were immigrants. He was mayor of New York City–perhaps the world’s greatest experiment in diversity. And he’s running for president in the Republican Party, a party that even former chairman Ken Mehlman has acknowledged faces genuine problems reaching out to non-whites. In 2000, George W. Bush won 62 percent of white males–and lost the popular vote. Bush won 60 percent of the white male vote in 2004–and just 50.7 percent of the overall vote. As any GOP strategist will tell you privately, the Republican Party has become too dependent on white male voters.
So what does this have to do with Giuliani? He’s a white guy, right? Well, yes and no. Who counts as white in America has been a fluid concept in our history, and Italians have only recently–and perhaps incompletely in some quarters–been admitted to the racial club.
It was just 85 years ago, in 1922, in the fascinating case of Rollins v. Alabama, that a black man named Jim Rollins was tried and convicted for "miscegenation"–the crime of having sex with a white woman. On appeal, Rollins’ conviction was overturned because the woman in question, Ms. Edith LaBue, was a Sicilian immigrant, a fact that the court held could "in no sense be taken as conclusive that she was therefore a white woman." (Anyone who’s read William Faulkner’s novels will recognize the Alabama court’s unease about calling a Sicilian woman white.) Italians–like Irish, Jews, Poles, Greeks and now Hispanics and others–have struggled in our history to achieve "whiteness." It’s not a given–not a fixed characteristic. It’s always been a designation granted to a group by the dominant culture.
But that’s a done deal for Italian-Americans, long ago. They’re white–now. But the question for Giuliani is whether there is some shadow, some echo of the old attitudes in how some voters might approach his candidacy.
Giuliani is at odds with Republican base voters on several major issues: abortion, gay rights, gun control, immigration. His positions on these matters–combined with his background–confront Republicans with a distinctly "urban" candidate–an ethnic son of immigrants at ease with the roiling racial and social diversity of the big city that many GOP voters see as a threat to their notion of America. This is a party, after all, that has nominated precisely one ethnic immigrant candidate for national office in its history–Greek-American Spiro Agnew (the Roosevelts and Eisenhowers had been in America for centuries). Republicans have never nominated a Catholic for national office. Democrats have a different record–Irish-Americans Al Smith, John Kennedy and John Kerry; Polish-American Edmund Muskie; Norwegian-American Walter Mondale; Italian-American Geraldine Ferraro; Greek-American Michael Dukakis; Jewish-American Joseph Lieberman.
Look at a map of the 2004 election results, county by county. What you see is a nation divided by diversity. Rudy Giuliani’s candidacy challenges that division, and raises the question: Is he white enough?
So the Giuliani candidacy might tell us something about today’s Republican Party. And about America.

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