This week former Congressman Allen West criticized a Coca-Cola ad that featured Americans singing "America the Beautiful" in multiple languages. Mr. West found it "disturbing" that the song switched "from English to languages [he] didn't recognize" and even questioned whether a "fundamental transformation" of America was in fact underway.
Although no longer in Congress, Mr. West is, for better or worse, one of the most notable black Republicans in politics today. He delivered the keynote address at the 2013 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) and earned 14 percent of the vote in the CPAC presidential straw poll. For young African Americans looking for answers outside the Democratic Party, Mr. West is one of our nation's most visible Republican leaders.
So it is a shame that Mr. West is woefully out of touch with the longstanding and proud tradition of black leadership in his party. Black Republicans from Frederick Douglass to Edward Brooke to Colin Powell have differed on questions about the role of government, but they have generally agreed on one thing: a more inclusive America is a better and more prosperous America.
The Coca-Cola ad reflects an undeniable reality: America is the most diverse nation on the planet, and in 30 years we will be a nation without a racial majority. Already, almost half of children under five are people of color -- and yes, many of them are bilingual. The sooner we all come to terms with this, the better.
It may be helpful to contrast West's words with those of another black Republican, who was considered to be the father of modern black Republicanism and the modern civil rights movement. In 1869 Frederick Douglass delivered a speech titled "Our Composite Nationality" at another moment when America was undergoing a "fundamental transformation." He shared his vision of our national destiny:
Our geographical position, our relation to the outside world, our fundamental principles of government, world-embracing in their scope and character, our vast resources... and our already existing composite population, all conspire to one grand end, and that is to make us the perfect national illustration of the unity and dignity of the human family that the world has ever seen.
In 1869 America was in the middle of a profound demographic shift similar to the one today. The end of slavery happened to coincide with an uptick in immigration, as Chinese laborers came to America to help build the First Transcontinental Railroad. Facing the dual strains of racism and nativism, Douglass called for an embrace of diversity -- in the interest of both human rights and prosperity.
Speaking as a former slave turned statesman, Douglass argued that immigrants can "help to augment the national wealth" and "develop our boundless resources." He had special advice for nativists: the way to overcome bigotry is to "work for the elevation of those deemed worthless, and thus make them worthy of regard, and they will soon become worthy." Douglass' thesis is still true today -- we are ultimately a "composite nation" made up of people from many other nations, and we cannot ignore that fact.
Leaders are the captains of our ship of state: The direction they look determines the direction in which we tend to head. Douglass' optimism about our nation has been a hallmark of the average black Republican leaders for nearly 150 years. That is why it is so jarring to hear Mr. West disparage the newest faces and voices of our composite nationality.
Yes, Mr. West, America will look very different in 2043. That America, too, will be beautiful. Let us "work for the elevation" of every American and reap the national prosperity that the realization of their individual promise will bring.
In the meantime, have a Coke and a smile.
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