It might seem that an argument about whether Santa Claus and Jesus are "really" white is nothing more than an opportunity for Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert to make fun of people on Fox News, and not a matter with actual political consequences. After all, Santa is a fictional character whose current visual representations here in America have their origins in early 20th Century newspaper and magazine illustrations, but he's portrayed in different ways around the world. But before you dismiss this as just silliness, let me suggest that it does have important political effects.
In case you missed it, a few days back, Fox News host Megyn Kelly responded to an article about black kids wishing they could see a Santa who looks more like them by saying, "For all you kids watching at home, Santa just is white." She went on, "Just because it makes you feel uncomfortable doesn't mean it has to change. Jesus was a white man, too. He was a historical figure. That's a verifiable fact—as is Santa." After being roundly ridiculed, Kelly claimed she was joking, though it certainly didn't sound that way. Then her colleague Bill O'Reilly followed up with a little history lesson, acknowledging that Saint Nicholas was born in what's now Turkey, yet asserting emphatically that he was, in fact, white. Responding to the assertion that Jesus wasn't white either, O'Reilly said, "If you go to modern-day Turkey ... they don't consider themselves—the Turks—to be non-white. And if you go to the Holy Land, Judea, back then, they don't consider themselves to be non-white there. That's just history."
I'm not going to bother going into detail about what a howler that is on both counts, but what's interesting is how O'Reilly is under the impression that even 2,000 years ago, people living in what is now Israel would have had an idea of whiteness that included them. For O'Reilly, "white" seems to mean something like "people I now like," but in America, whiteness has always been a fluid category. For example, at one time in our history, Italian-Americans weren't considered white, and many people think that over time, Hispanics will end up being brought into the white category as well (if for no other reason than so whites can remain the majority).
Now here's why this matters for politics. As you surely know, Republicans have a problem with minority voters. In 2012, President Obama won not only 93 percent of the African-American vote and 71 percent of the votes of Hispanics, the nation's largest minority group, he also won 73 percent of the votes of Asian-Americans, the country's fastest-growing minority group. That's partly a result of a general ideological orientation, and partly a result of disagreement over particular policies, particularly the opposition of Republicans to comprehensive immigration reform. But even more important is the fact that Republicans routinely communicate hostility toward minorities. Mitt Romney got a lot of flack for advocating "self-deportation" of undocumented immigrants, i.e. making their lives so miserable that they'll leave the country. But that was only one comment in the context of a primary contest in which the candidates were trying to outdo each other to see who could express the most antipathy toward immigrants. And if you're Hispanic or African American you get a constant stream of messages that conservatives don't like you and your kind of people, and don't think you're American.
The alienation of minorities has to be constantly renewed and maintained, and conservatives, both politicians and media figures, do so with vigor and enthusiasm. This kind of policing of the racial and ethnic borders is heard loud and clear in minority communities. The insistence that Santa is white, the constant race-baiting from people like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, the ugly comments that inevitably crop up whenever immigration is discussed, the actual policy positions of the Republican party—all of it combines into a clear message from conservatives and Republicans, one that says, "You're not like us, and we don't like you." Come Election Day, people don't forget.