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Class and race and the new British prime minister

Rishi Sunak outside 10 Downing Street after delivering his first speech as prime minister. (Chris J. Ratcliffe/Bloomberg News)

It was a historic day, but Rishi Sunak wasn’t smiling. Momentous occasions can weigh a man down.

Sunak’s rise to the position of British prime minister has been celebrated for the multiple ways in which it makes history. He is the first prime minister of Indian descent to lead Britain. He’s the first to be a practicing Hindu. He’s the youngest in 200 years. And with a family fortune of $823 million, he and his wife are worth nearly twice as much as King Charles III, the monarch on whose behalf he is setting up his government.

It’s no small matter that Sunak is a brown-skinned man. On the global stage, he represents a leap forward in the way the Western world navigates its increasingly multicultural societies. His presence speaks to the ways power and authority have been defined, understood and wielded for generations. It’s remarkable to see Sunak lead the very country that once boasted of a colonial empire that included India for nearly a century. He will govern the country that once controlled the destiny of generations of men and women who looked like him.

And for Americans, where folks still tend to see diversity as a matter of Black and White, Sunak is a reminder that it’s more complex than that.

Rishi Sunak to become U.K. prime minister, first person of color in role

His rise isn’t a thunder clap 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 at Monday’s White House celebration of Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights.

Pretty astounding,” Biden said. “A groundbreaking milestone and it matters. It matters.”

It does. In so many ways.

Sunak’s success seems more complex than the diversity milestones that are memorialized in the United States. His background is not that of the bootstrapping underachiever who overcame debilitating poverty; his parents are both professionals. He isn’t the outsider who has promised to speak for the disenfranchised or the overlooked. He is not an activist-turned-politician aiming to dynamite a stubborn bureaucracy. Sunak is the Establishment and in some of his first remarks since becoming prime minister, he isn’t preaching hope as much as he is warning that the economy is a mess so the populace better brace itself.

“I will place economic stability and confidence at the heart of this government’s agenda. This will mean difficult decisions to come,” Sunak said, speaking slowly and deliberately.

Rishi Sunak vows to earn Britain’s trust in first speech as prime minister

Sunak delivered his first remarks as prime minister from behind a little wooden lectern placed in front of 10 Downing Street. He faced a forest of media. He did not look particularly happy. As he addressed the cameras, Sunak was steadfastly sober. His predecessor Liz Truss had set a record for being a short-timer in office at only 45 days, her demise so brisk and brutal that even Larry the Cat — a longtime Downing Street pet — was pictured shunning her affection.

In the company of fellow politicians, Sunak doesn’t tower over anyone. He isn’t broad-shouldered; he’s relatively slight. He has an unremarkable physique but he looks sharp. This may be due to what have been described as expensive suits. But then, what really counts as pricey to the extraordinarily wealthy? Much of Sunak’s money comes through marriage. His wife’s father founded the tech company Infosys. There’s nothing new about rich politicians, but it’s another marker of change when one considers that it’s a brown-skinned man and his brown-skinned wife who are the beneficiaries of not simply wealth, but inherited, self-made wealth. They have multiple homes. They have a manor.

He’s got Stanford and Oxford degrees. He’s a former banker who has been applauded for having the right mix of skills and qualifications for the moment. Sunak isn’t kindred with the anti-intellectualism and anti-elitism that dominates American politics. The credentials are no guarantee of success, but they matter. To be clear, Sunak did not have to appeal to a general electorate to become prime minister. His party voted him in. He’s an inside man.

The elevation of Sunak is not just a matter of a color line being broken in politics, but also in wealth and culture. He’s not a businessman who decided to dabble in government. He’s not a celebrity intoxicated by his own fame. He’s a conservative politician, the former chancellor of the exchequer, who went all the way.

It’s hard to imagine a similarly situated individual in the United States. Here, money, public policy, cultural allegiances and personal identity all converge in an untenable knot. It isn’t difficult being a Black person with conservative views — contrary to what more than a few Black Republicans have lamented. Walk into most mainline churches on Sunday morning and settle in. You’ll hear a sermon on personal responsibility, the importance of family, the dignity of work or respect for others. Black preachers don’t argue against the financial spoils of capitalism. After all, they help fill the collection plate and the tithing box.

But in this country, race has been conflated with political party. Capitalism’s failures are equated with personal failure. To be a Republican has little to do with conservatism and more to do with White grievance even if you’re neither White nor aggrieved. And so the rise of conservative Sunak matters because he’s a reminder that political ideology and race can be discussed in a way that feels nuanced and complicated and almost impossible in the United States.

After a lifetime of vivid symbolism, Queen Elizabeth II faded to gray

On Tuesday, Sunak visited Buckingham Palace to meet with Charles, who dutifully asked him to form a government. Their brief encounter was captured for history. The two men clasp hands and look each other in the eye. Charles’s navy pinstriped suit is slightly wrinkled and his trousers break over his shoes in the classic style. Sunak’s slim dark suit looks immaculate. His trousers fall just to the top of his shoes in a sharp, unbroken line that emphasizes his youth. The 73-year-old monarch leans in for the meeting with a solid presence. Sunak, 42, has the slightly curved posture of a man in perpetual motion.

Sunak is a physical reminder of the shifting dynamics in multicultural democracies. He’s a glimpse of what the future can be. The look of power can shift but the foundation can remain reassuringly the same. What previous generations may never have thought possible can seem virtually inevitable to those who live through it.

It’s also a picture worth holding onto. Because inevitable doesn’t necessarily mean lasting.