OUTSIDE Pimlico Race Course yesterday, there was Michael Steele, the lieutenant governor of Maryland. He was talking with a couple of horse breeders, Yu Wang and Richard Wang. This looked dangerous, and possibly un-American, as perceived by Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. The Wang brothers are Chinese. Steele is an African-American.
"This looks like multiculturalism to me," I said.
He laughed loudly, and kept on laughing. Everybody stood there and waited for him to stop the laughing, but Steele kept going. "Ha-ha-ha," and "ha-ha-ha," he said. It was the kind of forced laugh that stalls for time. "Ha-ha-ha." It was laughter that says, I know where you're trying to take me with this, but if I keep laughing long enough, maybe you'll go away and not make me talk about this crass and crude and mean-spirited language uttered by my boss that sounds like an insult to everyone in America whose people came from some other place - which is, in fact, just about every single soul in America.
"So, what's your question?" Steele said when he finally stopped laughing.
"Are you comfortable," he was asked, "with the governor's remarks about multiculturalism?"
"I'm comfortable," Steele sighed, "with my governor."
"That's your best shot?"
But Steele turned and walked away, awaiting the arrival of Governor Ehrlich so the two of them could walk into the annual Alibi Breakfast at Pimlico, kicking off Preakness Weekend, and guard each other's flanks.
Because the flak is coming from everywhere now.
The governor refuses to apologize, and the lieutenant governor wishes the issue would go away. But it does not. A week ago, Comptroller William Donald Schaefer was in a public snit because a woman who served him at a McDonald's didn't speak English well enough. This became a launching pad for a governor who once called himself a uniter.
With his superb sense of piling on, initially learned when he resided in Newt Gingrich's back pocket, Ehrlich quickly echoed Schaefer. Isn't this grand? Let's have the most powerful people in government bully some poor Hispanic woman struggling to learn the language while making minimum wage and probably sending any spare dollars she makes back home to Guatemala or someplace to help support the family there.
Reaching for the loftiest heights of the most sophisticated and diplomatic language in his vocabulary, the governor, speaking on WBAL radio, declared the great American melting pot "crap" and "bunk."
Those were his exact words, though Ehrlich attached them to a buzzword that he believed would give him political cover: multiculturalism. So, what's multiculturalism? Multi, meaning more than one. Culture, referring to the many different ethnic and racial and religious backgrounds that make up the great national mix - or, as we sometimes call it when we teach it to schoolchildren about learning to live with their neighbors - the melting pot.
Which leaves us with the fallout.
It leaves us with immigrant groups across the state expressing their hurt feelings, and demanding an apology, and the governor saying "no." Partly, he says "no" because he knows he has tapped into something that might work for him: that dark, nervous, twitching piece of the national psyche that cowers from anything, or anyone, perceived to be different and therefore threatening. A nation of nearly 300 million people, who came from every corner of the earth - and we're still looking for "outsiders."
For heaven's sake, just look in the mirror.
Or talk to Jorge Ribas. Ribas, out of Ecuador, has been in this country for only 42 years, so maybe he's still considered an outsider. After all, he has an accent. He'd have been hell behind that McDonald's counter. But Ribas spent 28 years in the U.S. Army before retiring as a lieutenant colonel. Also, he is Republican, chairman of the Maryland Hispanic Republican Caucus, which is what drew Ehrlich to Ribas more than a year ago during the campaign for governor.
"I was in the Latin Palace, on Broadway," Ribas recalled. "And Ehrlich came over to me and said he needed my help. He said, `I come from humble origins, like many immigrants.' He used those exact words. I was impressed. Wouldn't you be impressed? I said, I'll do whatever I can to help this man; I'm a good Republican. I spent five months of my life, full time, working to get him elected. I will never do it again."
The relationship soured after the election, when Ribas complained publicly that Ehrlich had appointed no Latinos to his Cabinet. Republican leaders' response? They ousted Ribas' group from the party and formed their own Hispanic caucus. But Ehrlich's new remarks offended Ribas because he understands the language of code words.
"I'm still Republican; I believe in Republican values," Ribas said. "But this ... when I heard the governor's remarks, I felt nauseous. Here's a man who's using Hispanics as scapegoats in order to throw red meat to the ignorant, uneducated people of his base. This was planned; this was part of his political strategy.
"And Michael Steele, who comes from the experience of slavery - he's a caricature now, refusing to say anything about these remarks. It's appalling. The woman at McDonald's didn't speak English well enough? We all want to learn English. Every immigrant does. But, what do they think, you learn a new language overnight? We come here and we work, and we learn.
"And then we hear this type of talk, which leads to violence. It's political opportunism at the expense of an ethnic group."
Actually, it's political opportunism at the expense of all ethnic groups who are considered the Other.