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The RNC and the Melting Pot

Facing criticism for attempting to capitalize on the devastation of September 11th, 2001, organizers of the 2004 Republican National Convention have begun to frame the four-day event as a celebration of New York’s diversity and cultural history. However, thus far, they have struggled to explain how they intend to experience—and not exploit—the city’s cultural diversity.

At an event on Staten Island in mid-February, William Harris, the CEO of the convention, praised the city’s demographics to a crowd of Republican loyalists. “New York exemplifies the United States of America as an immigrant society,” he said.

Harris then went on to herald the city’s “American icons,” including Ellis Island, among others. “These are all places that people in the United States know about, even if they’ve never been here,” he said, noting that the Republican Party intends to encourage its convention guests to visit the New York’s famous landmarks when they come to town this summer.

In a subsequent interview, Leslie Beyer, the Deputy Director of Communications for the convention, focused on the same issues. “We’re definitely striving to experience New York and its great diversity,” she said. Asked about the Republicans’ efforts to extend the event to the outer boroughs, she replied, “We’re looking at American icons, and some of them are outside Manhattan.”

Certainly, the thousands of Republicans from across the country—many of whom will be venturing to New York for the first time—should make every effort to visit the city’s historic sites and “American icons.” But Harris and the convention organizers are missing a critical point: New York has much more than museums and monuments to show for its diversity and culture.

Peter Laarman, chairman of the Accountability Campaign, a group working to counter the message of the convention, criticized the Republicans’ efforts to capitalize on the city’s icons. “It’s worrisome that they are trying to capture New York’s symbolism and not engage its people,” he said.

Laarman also accused the Republicans of selecting New York as the site of their convention to capitalize politically on Ground Zero and the city’s other historical and cultural icons. Laarman says, the party’s leaders “didn’t pick New York because they like the hotels, they picked it because it represents something they can use as a glorified aircraft carrier for their reelection campaign,” he said, referring to the president’s “Mission Accomplished” speech aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln last year.

Indeed, as Laarman suggested, the Republicans have shown little interest in New York beyond the icons they hope to showcase this summer. But if Harris and the convention organizers are at all serious about acknowledging and appreciating the city’s cultural diversity, they clearly have a responsibility to encourage their guests to experience that element of the city in the flesh—not just in the souvenir shops of historic landmarks.

Ellis Island, of course, represents a critical chapter of American history. Between 1892 and 1924, its immigration station welcomed thousands of transatlantic voyagers per day, and by 1954 had processed more than 12 million people. Today, the Ellis Island Immigration Museum showcases the experiences of those immigrants, illustrating the formation of the nation’s multicultural composition.

But Ellis Island represents more than a piece of history; it represents the melting pot that continues to define New York. Today, the residents of Queens and Brooklyn speak more than 100 languages, and Asian Indian, Colombian, Bangladeshi, Nigerian, Chinese, and Pakistani immigrants, among others, coexist in those boroughs’ vibrant neighborhoods.

Convention organizers, however, despite their frequent references to New York’s reflection of America as a nation of immigrants, have made no mention of encouraging their guests to spend time in the diverse neighborhoods of Queens and Brooklyn. Instead, they have repeatedly alluded to the symbolism of Ellis Island’s immigration museum.

This disconnection between New York’s icons and its people has not only infuriated community activists; it has also riled up some political leaders. Councilman Charles Barron (D-Brooklyn) called the Republicans’ commitment to diversity “a bunch of nonsense” and harshly criticized the party’s treatment of New York. Contending that “the Republicans are going to ignore New York’s communities of color,” Barron dismissed the convention organizers’ attempt to link the event to the city’s diversity and cultural history as “disgraceful, manipulative, [and] hypocritical.”

Interestingly enough, this is not the first time the Republicans have encountered criticism of this kind. During their 2000 convention in Philadelphia, they experienced a similar detachment between the city’s historic monuments and its people. Amidst the fanfare of that event, the party’s leaders frequently posed with icons like the Liberty Bell and spoke of freedom for people of all backgrounds. However, they paid no attention to the neighborhoods that defined Philadelphia’s cultural diversity—specifically the heavily populated African-American and Latino communities of North Philadelphia.

The Kensington Welfare Rights Union (KWRU), a national non-profit group based in North Philadelphia, actually arranged a series of “reality tours” during the 2000 convention to highlight the elements of the city that the convention chose not to showcase, including the racial, as well as socioeconomic, diversity of the city. Cheri Honkala, the director of KWRU, pointedly noted that “no one from the convention, officially or unofficially, joined us on any of the tours.”

This time around, the Republicans have walked themselves into a similar dilemma. Of course, they are doing nothing wrong by encouraging their guests to visit icons like Ellis Island; those landmarks provide brilliant snapshots of history and often help visitors gain a better understanding of both the city and the nation.

But if the Republicans planning this summer’s convention have a sincere desire to showcase the city’s diversity and cultural history, they have a responsibility to grasp the larger picture. Specifically, they need to encourage their guests to look beyond the icons and experience this multicultural city firsthand.

Patrick Mulvaney is a writer based in Toms River, New Jersey.


Patrick Mulvaney

Patrick Mulvaney is a writer based in Toms River, New Jersey.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2004

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