Presidential politics, skin color and the art of racial sleight-of-hand

Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy has an intriguing, seductive background. He was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, to immigrant parents who are Tamil-speaking Brahmins – members of India’s highest caste. They were highly educated before they came to the United States some 40 years ago. His father arrived on a student visa, according to the son, and General Electric eventually hired him as an engineer and patent attorney. His mother immigrated on a green card and became a geriatric psychiatrist.

The Ramaswamys settled in Ohio, where Vivek was born in 1985, if not with the proverbial silver spoon in his mouth certainly close to it. In his book “Woke Inc.” he wrote that he became aware of status and inequality between Brahmins and the lower Indian castes, adding, “Kings were below us.”

That status did not transfer to the family’s adopted homeland, which has no official caste system, but his parents obviously brought a tradition of educational excellence. Ramsammy attended public schools through eighth grade, then transferred to a Jesuit-run high school in Cincinnati, the only Hindu in his class, graduating in 2002 as valedictorian.

He moved on to Harvard University, where, according to a Wikipedia profile, he was a inducted into Phi Beta Kappa and “gained a reputation as a brash and confident libertarian.” He served as president of the Harvard Political Union and considered himself a debate-loving “contrarian.” He also took a stab at rapping as “Da Vek.” He interned at the Amaranth Advisors hedge fund and the Goldman Sachs investment bank and his senior thesis focused on the ethical questions raised by human-animal chimeras – created by transplanting living cells, tissues or organs from one species to another. It won him the prestigious Bowdoin Prize.

Ramaswamy graduated from Harvard in 2007 with a bachelor’s in biology with highest honor and enrolled at Yale Law School on a post-graduate award from the Paul & Daisy Soros Fellowships for New Americans. By then, he has said, he was already wealthy from activities in finance, pharmaceuticals and biotechnology. He estimated his net worth at around $15 million by the time he graduated from Yale in 2013 with a law degree. At Yale, he met and married an Indian medical student, now a physician, and they have two sons. And, by his mid-30s, he was on the way to becoming a billionaire.

So far, so good.

Then, in February, Ramaswamy entered the presidential race and gained national exposure during the first Republican debate on August 23 and polls indicated many Republican voters liked what he said. He currently in the top five of candidates. The Washington Post listed the main planks of his platform as staunch support for fossil fuels; firing 75 percent of the federal workforce; deploying troops to Mexico to secure the border; raising the voting age to 25, along with a new citizenship test; and ending military aid to Ukraine.

Then came the tricky part: race.

In his presidential coming-out video, Ramaswamy invoked Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a Dream” 1963 address. “That was the speech where he said, ‘I hope my four children grow up in a country where they are judged not on the color of their skin but on the content of their character,’” he said. He later explained, according to The Post, that he “sees King’s words not in the broader context of his full speech or the historic moment in which it was given but as a sort of Uno-reverse for the race card: that any recognition of racial disparities is at odds with King’s vision.”

“So,” The Post added, “instead of addressing inequalities that are rooted in race, in this view we should treat efforts to address those inequalities as hindrances to the universal racial harmony that will follow our ignoring race entirely. And instead of accounting for the ways in which success is hindered by racism, we should simply act as though contests for power are fair and celebrate the winners.”

Ramaswamy elaborated on CNN’s “Dana Bash on Sunday” program: “Right as the last few burning embers of racism were burning out, we have a culture in this country largely created by media and establishment and universities and politicians that throw kerosene on that racism. I can think of no better way to fuel racism in this country than to take something away from other people on the basis of their skin color. I have been saying that for years. And I think that is driving, sadly, a new wave of anti-Black and anti-Hispanic racism in this country.” But, The Post pointed out, “What Ramaswamy describes as ‘taking something away from people based on skin color’ is obviously meant to refer to things such as affirmative action and not to Black people being filtered out of consideration for jobs based on their names. The entire point is that racism against non-Whites has been forced into more subtle patterns.”

Ramaswamy’s argument comes straight from the Republican playbook, including the attacks on critical race theory and reimagining slavery, to argue that demanding racial justice merely perpetuates divisiveness, what he calls “reverse racism.”

“I’m sure the boogeyman white supremacists exist somewhere in America. I have just never met him. Never seen one. Never met one in my life, right? Maybe I will meet a unicorn sooner. And maybe those exist, too,” he said during an Iowa campaign stop.

Perhaps to shore up that argument, Ramaswamy suddenly picked a fight with Massachusetts Democratic Rep. Ayanna Pressley, an African American member of the progressive “Squad” in the Congress.

In 2019, as Democratic House members were locked in a heated and public debate on the path ahead, Pressley stated, “We don’t need any more brown faces that don’t want to be a brown voice. … We don’t need any more black faces that don’t want to be a black voice.” The Post said Pressley appeared to be referring to the Congressional Black Caucus, an ally of the then Speaker, Nancy Pelosi. But Pressley’s spokeswoman explained that she was trying to make the point that “diversity at the table doesn’t matter if there’s not real diversity in policy.”

Enter Ramaswamy. “It’s racist. It’d make the Grand Wizard of the KKK proud,” he wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter. He said on CNN’s “Inside Politics” that he raised the matter “to provoke an open and honest discussion in this country.”

That did not fly with Pressley, who, on MSNBC’s “Politics Nation,” accused Ramaswamy of a “verbal assault” that was “shameful” and “dangerous.” She added, “It is not that long ago that we were besieged by images of white supremacists carrying tiki torches in Charlottesville. It was not that long ago that a white supremacist mob seized the Capitol, waving Confederate flags and erecting nooses on the West Lawn of the Capitol.” She said her “ancestors and living family members have been brutalized, lynched, raped by the Ku Klux Klan.”

Even after the recent killing of three African Americans by an avowed racist European American in Jacksonville, Ramaswamy refused to budge. In his interview with MSNBC’s Dana Bash, he argued that having respect for the victims meant “not bring[ing] them into partisan politics.” It is the left who are the real racists, he maintained.

In the rarefied atmosphere of the cloistered super-rich, Ramaswamy is either oblivious to or refuses to admit the fact that his and his family’s achievements in this country are due at least in part to the very activism against which he rails, that without the civil rights movement of the 1960s, life would have been very different for them. That is why he runs the risk of being compared to the proverbial dry coconut: brown outside but white inside and close cousin to a certain brand of cookies. He could take comfort from the fact that he would not be first or the last to be so branded.

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