Playing a losing race card

Former Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez is one of California’s most gifted politicians; filmmaker Spike Lee is a remarkable American artist. This week, both of them made utter fools of themselves, and understanding exactly how they did so tells us something important about where we are as a people and as a country.

There was a time, not long ago, when the worst hypocrisy in American public life was the pretense that race and ethnicity somehow didn’t matter. But that’s not the case any more. Although race is still a factor in our national life, it’s hardly a deterministic one and, today, there are few fallacies more corrosive than the assertion that only race matters.

That’s part of Sen. Barack Obama’s appeal to young voters. When he discusses race, it’s in a language intelligible to a generation that has grown up in a nation where two successive secretaries of State have been African American and the last U.S. attorney general was a Latino -- all appointed by a Republican president. It’s a country in which black men have held the top spots in the largest financial services and communications companies and Asian Americans occupy the corner offices in many of the economy’s most forward-looking corporations.

A colorblind society? Hardly. But in 2008, Americans -- and particularly young Americans -- are not prone to be sympathetic when leading figures from politics or culture play the race card, as both Nunez and Lee did so clumsily this week.


Nunez went on Univision’s Spanish-language political program “Voz y Voto” and lashed out at reports in The Times that he had spent lavishly from his campaign funds on foreign travel and luxury goods. As you may recall, last fall this paper’s Sacramento bureau reported that Nunez had spent nearly $50,000 donated by “friends” on air travel to Europe and Argentina. He spent $5,149 for “a meeting” in the cellar of a Bordeaux wine shop. More than $2,500 went to buy “gifts” at Louis Vuitton in Paris.

One of the more interesting extravagances was the $8,745 tab the then-speaker ran up at the Hotel Arts in Barcelona, Spain. The bill included the services of a “translator.” Although nobody expects the speaker of the California Assembly to speak Catalan, and although not all Catalonians speak English, they all speak Spanish, just like Nunez. (Actually, the apogee -- or nadir, if you will -- of the former speaker’s generosity was the $2,701 handmade belt buckle Nunez bought as a gift for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. The zillionaire former movie star returned it as “too lavish.”)

Now that he’s no longer speaker, Nunez addressed the subject head-on this week. “Everyone’s done it like this,” he told his interviewer. “The difference is there are some in politics who want to judge me in a certain manner. Because of the fact I am Mexican, they think I have to sleep under a cactus and eat from taco stands.

Really? Over the last 10 years, there have been six speakers of the Assembly. Three have been Latinos -- including Antonio Villaraigosa, the current mayor of Los Angeles -- two have been African Americans and one was a white male. None of them required the services of a Catalan translator or felt the need to hold meetings surrounded by aging barrels of Bordeaux. Nunez’s attempt to attribute any objections about his thoroughly objectionable conduct to his ethnicity is a perverse moral reductionism -- a mirror image, in fact, of the sort of racist view that categorically denied a person’s achievements because of his race.


People criticized Nunez’s extravagance for a simple reason: They resent seeing public office used like a personal ATM, no matter what language their parents spoke at home. Moreover, they find this sort of conduct particularly hard to accept when the elected official comes out of the labor movement, as the former speaker proudly does, and belongs to a party that claims to represent the interests of working people.

Hypocrisy, it turns out, is colorblind. While Nunez’s toss of the race card was transparent and self-serving, Lee’s was both those things -- and something slightly nastier. The director was in Cannes, serving on one of the film festival’s minor juries, when he took the opportunity to slam Clint Eastwood for the absence of African American characters in his critically acclaimed films on the bloodiest battle of World War II’s Pacific campaign, “Flags of Our Fathers” and “Letters From Iwo Jima.”

“He did two films about Iwo Jima back to back, and there was not one black soldier in both of those films,” Lee said. “Many veterans, African Americans, who survived that war are upset at Clint Eastwood. In his vision of Iwo Jima, Negro soldiers did not exist. Simple as that. I have a different version.”

You bet he does, which is why his next picture just happens to be the story of four soldiers serving in an all-black Army division in Italy. Controversy makes good publicity, and envy of Eastwood’s success is an understandable, if not particularly admirable, trait.


There is, however, the small matter of history and dramatic storytelling. Putting aside the fact that there were no “soldiers” on Iwo Jima, only Marines, let’s stipulate for the record that it might be hard to work too many African Americans into a story about the Japanese Imperial Army, which is what “Letters from Iwo Jima” was.

As far as “Flags of Our Fathers” goes, 900 of the 19,168 black Americans who served in the U.S. Marine Corps during World War II were among the 250,000 Americans who ultimately went ashore there. All were in rigidly segregated units. Only the black Marines of the 8th Ammunition Company came ashore during the second and third waves, which would have put them on the island in time for the flag-raising that was the subject of the film.

Moreover, the fact of the matter is that looking back over Eastwood’s directorial career -- including his Oscar-winning films “Unforgiven” and “Million Dollar Baby” -- there’s probably no filmmaker of similar stature in Hollywood history who has so unself-consciously created central roles for actors who just happened to be African American.

Both the outbursts we heard this week belong to the era of identity politics and culture that is now thankfully fading. From the start, the insistence that race and ethnicity were central to American identity constituted an intellectual swamp that ultimately had to drain into a moral sewer. That’s why its outflow -- like the remarks Nunez and Lee made this week -- now strike us as bilge.