March 3, 2003

Greeks, Guatemalans, and the GOP

By: Raul Damas

Last year the low-budget film “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” netted $249 million at the domestic box office. According to Hollywood business analysts, an audience largely composed of people who don’t usually go to the movies generated the film’s remarkable success.

“Wedding” tapped into a market segment that traditionally showed little interest in popular cinema. How did Hollywood accomplish this? Simply by holding a mirror up to the face of America.

For what felt like the first time, Hollywood showed us a Mediterranean family whose livelihood did not revolve around extortion and assassination. But it was irrelevant that the family was Greek. The draw was that they had an identifiable culture; something completely missing from the vast majority of popular entertainment.

Had the film appealed only to Greeks, it could never have done as well. “Wedding” appealed to the hundred or so million Americans happily unable to trace their roots to Northern Europe.

The marketing that followed the initial word-of-mouth-fueled success told you everything “ethnics” already knew, but Hollywood was just getting. In a TV ad, the film’s logo is altered in rapid succession to read “My Big Fat Mexican (then) Italian (then) Chinese (and finally) Greek Wedding.”

“Wedding” didn’t depict Greek culture as much as it depicted culture in general. It showed what it is like to live in America, as an American, while maintaining the customs and traditions of one’s ancestors.

In effect, “Wedding” is the way America has always looked, but was never depicted.

The truest moment in the film came when the WASPy mother of the groom asks her husband if his secretary wasn’t also Greek, later realizing that, “She’s Guatemalan.” (From personal experience, I can assure you her next question would have been, “Do you know her?”)

As funny as the scene was, you know it’s not a joke if you’ve ever been to a supermarket and marveled at the “Ethnic” section sandwiched between staples like “Soups” and “Pasta.” Long the lonely outpost of all things Goya, the typical “Ethnic” section now encompasses everything from Thai to Ethiopian condiments.

In a telling nod to demographic reality, many supermarkets now have their own “Hispanic” section. One may assume that “Pasta” earned the same honor earlier in the previous century.

Just as our entertainment and culinary landscape must necessarily expand to respond to a more diverse America, so will our political landscape.

In other words, Trent Lott on BET was just a starter. By that same token, many political operatives will soon feel like its Cinco de Mayo forever. (Or at least until they realize Mexicans actually hold September 16th, Mexican Independence Day, more dearly.)

As our nation continues to realize how interesting we’ve become, race and ethnicity, as a component of political debate, will only become more common.

This has, understandably, struck fear in the hearts of many in the GOP.

“We’re going to see race politics on an unprecedented level,” a Republican Party strategist warned me. “[Democrats] have nothing to lose. Campaign finance reform has destroyed their fundraising apparatus and they don’t control any branch of the federal government.”

But should we really be scared of a politics that, as noted above, simply reflects the reality of our country? Only if we’re unwilling to reclaim it.

Just as important as recognizing ethnicity’s expanding political role is defining that politics on the most advantageous terms for our nation. For Republicans, that means completely re-focusing the debate.

The “race politics” that we’ve come to know and hate is a game designed largely by and for the Left. It is politics defined by narrowly-focused, mostly memberless “civil rights” organizations that thrive by forever relegating Republicans to a defensive posture. As such, it is critical that the GOP chart its own course in the new world.

One way to do this is to focus on the issues that actually help minorities. If you think even 10% of blacks and Hispanics are worried about law school admissions standards, you’re living in a dream world brought to you by the Left.

The fact is most black and Hispanic students are struggling to just graduate high school. The affirmative action debate diverts much needed attention away from the “root cause” of minority underachievement–horrible primary and secondary public education. Needless to say, it also puts opponents of affirmative action (read: Republicans) in a terrible light.

But again we come to the problem of perception. Just like Hollywood, Washington has long “catered” to a minority population that simply does not exist. By taking as gospel any press release generated by non-profit organizations consumed only with self-preservation, politicians have long ignored the real issues facing minorities.

For Republicans, this has meant competing with Democrats in a game that they simple cannot win. Democrats will always hire more minorities, for its own sake, and pander to the lower lowest common denominator.

Fortunately, it’s safe to assume that minorities track along with the 90% of Americans who couldn’t care less about political appointments. Likewise, welfare and immigration reform does not a minority politics make.

Whenever asked to identify their chief concerns, Hispanics and blacks talk about jobs and education. It’s safe to assume they’re not talking about political jobs and Ivy League law schools. Unfortunately, most politicians are.

Maybe they’re thinking of Guatemalans.