(The Root) — So much for the melting pot.
When an anonymous foreign policy adviser to presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney criticized President Obama in the United Kingdom's Daily Telegraph for slighting Britain and ignoring America's "Anglo-Saxon heritage," it was a political shot heard 'round the world — or at least on both sides of the pond. Romney, who denied that anyone associated with his campaign had made the comment, also got into hot water last week for criticizing London's handling of the Olympic Games. He got verbally spanked by both the British prime minister and the mayor of London, as well as by the British press, for his gaffe. (To wit, the Sun called him "Mitt the Twit.")
But the controversial Telegraph quote about heritage might have been more meaningful because it flirted with the sin of omission. Of course, the Founding Fathers were all of English ancestry. What we now call America was not a desolate land when Europeans arrived but one populated by thousands of Native American tribes. As for African Americans, well, the first Africans arrived in Virginia in 1619. Some blacks were indentured servants or even free in the early colonial years, and many intermarried, particularly with white indentured servants. What makes America unique is precisely the grand intermixture of cultures from every populated continent that began before the nation itself was founded.
Does this all feel very "America 101" to you? Well, it does to me, too. And yet Romney's chosen rhetoric makes it imperative to restate the basics. While I'd like to think that the 2012 election will be less racially heated than the one in 2008, underlying tensions remain.
Some incidents are easier to write off as crackpot, like the Obama effigy hung by the Quran-burning Florida minister. Some are inept, like the race-baiting "Plan to Defeat Barack Hussein Obama," backed by a wealthy conservative but quickly leaked to the press.
Then there is Seth Stephens-Davidowitz's thoughtful analysis using Google Insights. He estimates that in 2008, "racial animus cost Mr. Obama three to five percentage points of the popular vote … [R]ace could very well prove decisive against Mr. Obama in 2012." As the election season intensifies, racial attacks likely will as well. The now-retracted statement of Romney supporter John Sununu that "I wish this president would learn to be an American" seems like a test balloon for how rough the wordplay can get.
I can't help wondering how much Romney has studied the history of European, African, Latin American and Asian populations in the United States; the political circumstances of their arrivals; and their intermingling. And I wonder what he would make of the mysteries of American ancestry. For example, when Penn State University molecular biologist Mark D. Shriver gathered DNA samples from thousands of Americans, he found that roughly 30 percent of white Americans have African ancestry. (To his surprise, he was one of that group.)
Romney ended last week with a very different trip, tonally — to Jerusalem, to speak to an Israeli audience. Despite the fact that President Obama far leads him in domestic and international polls of who is stronger on foreign policy, Romney criticized the president for weakening the relationship with Israel and called Jerusalem the true capital of Israel (although, in a long-standing dispute, Palestinians also claim the city, and the U.S. Embassy is thus in Tel Aviv). He's come under fire again, this time from Palestinian leaders, for a speech in which he compared the "economic vitality" of Israel and Palestine and suggested that Israeli culture makes it a more successful country.
But whether we are talking about ethnicity, race or religion, America exists because different world cultures made one powerful nation. Some of Romney's ancestors came to the United States in order to seek opportunity. Others subsequently left for Mexico when they could no longer practice the historical, polygamous form of Mormonism in the United States.
Mitt Romney's own family history points out the dynamic complexities of national identity. Is it too much to expect that he reflect, in his campaigning, an understanding of what this nation really is — who all of us, from all our parentages and religious backgrounds, really are? That is to say: Americans.
Farai Chideya is a journalist, author, and Distinguished Writer in Residence at New York University's Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute.