Jewish World Review Sept. 2, 2004 / 16 Elul, 5764

Jeff Jacoby

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The right kind of diversity | NEW YORK — Earl Cunningham is one stalwart conservative. A 73-year-old Army and Navy veteran who fought in two wars, Cunningham describes himself as "prolife, profamily, proguns, and probusiness." He is unalterably opposed to same-sex marriage and affirmative action, and he particularly admires the fact that his state's governor is a born-again Christian.

Doris Oliveira, by contrast, is a pretty determined liberal. The 72-year-old veterinarian is unabashedly prochoice, "very definitely" for affirmative action, and not especially troubled by the prospect of same-sex marriage. She is at best lukewarm on the war in Iraq, she thinks there's too much religious talk by government officials, and she's put off by what she sees as a conservative drift in American politics.

To judge from their political outlooks, you might guess that Cunningham and Oliveira have nothing important in common. In fact, both of them are delegates to the Republican National Convention. Both of them are from Alabama. And both of them are black.

The Republican Party has been trumpeting the "diversity" of its 2004 convention for weeks now, making much of the fact that nearly one out of every five delegates is black, Hispanic, or Asian. Earlier this month it released a flurry of press releases with headlines like "Michigan delegation to the 2004 Republican National Convention among the most diverse in party history." The convention website prominently features a "Diversity Report," complete with multicolored bar charts and pictures of delegates of various hues and ethnicities.

But the real diversity at the Republican convention isn't in the skin tones of delegates. It's in the striking range of the delegates' views, in the endless variety of their life experiences, in the wonderful multiplicity of their careers, their family histories, their personal values.

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Cunningham earned a Bronze Star in Vietnam and spent 25 years as a counselor at the University of Alabama. Oliveira lived in Chicago until she was 9 and admires her grandfather, a Depression-era garbage collector, for managing to pay her father's way through medical school. If the Republican Party wants to celebrate the diversity of its 4,900 delegates and alternates, surely it can find more interesting things to notice about them than their race.

It is perfectly reasonable for the GOP to want to increase its support among minorities. But there is a right way and a wrong way to attract nonwhite voters, and the wrong way is to engage in the bean-counting tokenism that has become such a Democratic Party hallmark. ("Diversity" at Democratic national conventions is achieved by a system of quotas that govern the makeup of each state's delegation.)

And the right way? The right way is to appoint well-qualified Americans, including those who happen to be minorities — men and women like Secretary of State Colin Powell, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao, or Judge Alberto Gonzales, the White House counsel — to positions of responsibility and influence.

The right way is to recruit, groom, and support talented and attractive candidates for office, including those who happen to be nonwhite — candidates like Michael Steele, now the lieutenant governor of Maryland, or Yvonne Brown, a delegate who is also the Republican mayor of Tchula, Miss., a nearly all-black town in the Mississippi Delta.

Above all, the right way to grow the ranks of black, Hispanic, and Asian Republicans is to promote a vision and a set of values that inspire and resonate with voters of every color and ancestry. A fine example of a message that is quintessentially Republican yet particularly meaningful to minorities was offered by Steele in his prime-time speech Tuesday night.

"What truly defines the civil rights challenge today isn't whether you can get a seat at the lunch counter," he told the convention delegates. "It's whether you can own that lunch counter in order to create legacy wealth for your children."

Spend a few hours talking with nonwhite delegates about how they came to be Republicans and you discover that most of them were motivated by ideas. Many say they grew up in an all-Democratic environment and gradually came to realize that the Democratic Party's view of the world simply didn't mesh with their own. Some are motivated by social issues like abortion and guns; others are drawn by the Republicans' limited-government, low-tax philosophy. None I have met at this convention is a member of the GOP because of a yearning for "diversity."

Press releases that reduce delegates to racial categories on a bar chart are demeaning. Republicans should celebrate Earl Cunningham and Doris Oliveira not because of how they look on the outside but because of who they are on the inside. That is the only measure of true diversity — and the only real way to build a Republican Party that looks like America.

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Jeff Jacoby is a Boston Globe columnist. Comment by clicking here.

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