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Class and Race and Britain’s New Prime Minister

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It was a historic day, but Rishi Sunak was not smiling. Memorable occasions can weigh on a man.

Sunak’s rise to the post of British Prime Minister has been celebrated for the myriad ways in which he writes history. He is the first Prime Minister of Indian descent to lead Britain. He is the first practicing Hindu. He is the youngest in 200 years. And with a family fortune of $823 million, he and his wife are worth almost twice as much as King Charles III, the monarch in whose name he sets up his government.

It’s no small feat that Sunak is a brown-skinned man. On the world stage, it represents a leap forward in how the Western world navigates its increasingly multicultural societies. Its presence bears witness to how power and authority have been defined, understood and exercised for generations. It is remarkable to see Sunak ruling the very country that once boasted of a colonial empire that included India for almost a century. He will rule the land that once controlled the destinies of generations of men and women like him.

And for Americans, where people still tend to see diversity as a matter of black and white, Sunak reminds that it’s more complex than that.

Rishi Sunak will become British Prime Minister, first person of color in this role

His rise is not a clap of thunder out of nowhere. There have been other high-ranking men and women of color in Britain, including the returning Home Secretary and the current Foreign Secretary. Still, Sunak resonates. President Biden even acknowledged the moment during his remarks during the White House celebration of Diwali on Monday, the Hindu festival of lights.

Pretty amazing,” Biden said. “A groundbreaking step and that matters. It matters.”

It does. In many ways.

Sunak’s success seems more complex than the diversity milestones that are commemorated in the United States. His journey is not that of the underachievers who overcame debilitating poverty; his parents are both professionals. He is not the stranger who promised to speak on behalf of the excluded or the forgotten. He is not an activist-turned-politician aiming to blast a stubborn bureaucracy. Sunak is the establishment and in some of his first remarks since becoming prime minister, he doesn’t preach hope so much as he warns that the economy is a mess so the people better prepare.

“I will put economic stability and confidence at the heart of this government’s program. It will mean tough decisions ahead,” Sunak said, speaking slowly and deliberately.

Rishi Sunak pledges to win Britain’s trust in first speech as PM

Sunak delivered his first remarks as Prime Minister from behind a small wooden lectern outside 10 Downing Street. He faced a forest of media. He didn’t look particularly happy. As he addressed the cameras, Sunak was decidedly sober. His predecessor Liz Truss had set a short-lived record in power at just 45 days, her demise so quick and brutal that even Larry the cat – a longtime Downing Street pet – was pictured running away from her affections .

In the company of other politicians, Sunak does not dominate anyone. He’s not broad-shouldered; it is relatively light. He has an ordinary physique but he looks sharp. This may be due to what have been described as expensive costumes. But then, what really counts as expensive for the extraordinarily rich? Much of Sunak’s money comes from marriage. His wife’s father founded the technology company Infosys. There’s nothing new about wealthy politicians, but it’s another marker of change when you consider that it’s a brown-skinned man and his brown-skinned wife who are the beneficiaries not only of wealth, but inherited and self-made wealth. They have several houses. They have a mansion.

He has degrees from Stanford and Oxford. He is a former banker who has been applauded for having the right mix of skills and qualifications at the moment. Sunak has nothing to do with the anti-intellectualism and anti-elitism that dominate American politics. Credentials aren’t a guarantee of success, but they do matter. To be clear, Sunak did not have to appeal to a general electorate to become prime minister. His party elected him. He is an inside man.

Sunak’s rise is not just about breaking the color line in politics, but also about wealth and culture. He is not a businessman who decided to meddle with the government. He’s not a celebrity intoxicated by his own fame. It was a Conservative politician, the former Chancellor of the Exchequer, who went all the way.

It is difficult to imagine an individual in a similar situation in the United States. Here, money, public policy, cultural allegiances and personal identity converge in an untenable knot. It’s not hard to be a black person with conservative views — contrary to what more than a few black Republicans have lamented. Enter most major churches on Sunday mornings and get settled. You will hear a sermon on personal responsibility, the importance of family, the dignity of work or respect for others. Black preachers do not dispute the financial spoils of capitalism. After all, they help fill the collection tray and tithe box.

But in this country, race has been confused with political party. The failures of capitalism are equated with personal failures. Being a Republican has little to do with conservatism and more with white grievances, even if you’re neither white nor aggrieved. And so the rise of conservative Sunak is important because he’s a reminder that political ideology and race can be discussed in ways that seem nuanced and complicated and nearly impossible in the United States.

After a lifetime of vivid symbolism, Queen Elizabeth II has gone gray

On Tuesday, Sunak traveled to Buckingham Palace to meet Charles, who dutifully asked him to form a government. Their brief encounter was captured for history. The two men shake hands and look each other in the eye. Charles’ navy blue pinstripe suit is slightly creased and his pants snap over his shoes in a classic style. Sunak’s dark, slim suit is impeccable. His pants fall to the top of his shoes in a clean, unbroken line that emphasizes his youth. The 73-year-old monarch leans in for the encounter with a solid presence. Sunak, 42, has the slightly bent posture of a man in perpetual motion.

Sunak is a physical reminder of the changing dynamics in multicultural democracies. It’s a glimpse of what the future may be. The appearance of power may change, but the foundation may remain the same, which is reassuring. What previous generations might never have thought possible can seem virtually inevitable to those who experience it.

It is also an image that deserves to be preserved. Because inevitable does not necessarily mean lasting.

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