“Minorities” are the Future Majority

I found this little article about non-white and immigrant voters in Virginia interesting. It doesn’t say much in its content–other than provide a sounding off board for a bunch of trite and recycled political “knowledge” about Latinos, et. al.–but its very publication says an awful lot.

When it comes down to it, Latino and Asian immigrants and their offspring are an unavoidable contingent of the electorate in a growing number of states. Both traditional Democrat and Republican structures are geared toward reaching out to white voters and one of the struggles both parties are grappling with is how to reorganize themselves in small and creative ways to reach the non-white voter. The first step is in taking as fact certain ubiquitous assumptions about these voters and then build from there. In this piece, the oldest assumptions about the Latino electorate are provided as the established contours of the battle ground: Latinos (and others) are socially conservative with liberal tendencies around immigration and race. They can go Dem but they can also go Republican.

In places like California and Texas, where the presence of these “minorities” is as old as the presence of the “majority”–and where demographic change has put us on a course to meaningfully flip those labels in a generation’s time–such infant “debates” as the one from Virginia seem almost silly. With more than 80 years of political activity and growth, Latino voters have acted in ways that would seem to confirm the above generalizations. That is, until the last decade.

We are in a critical moment of political realignment when it comes to the Latino electorate. Two things are emerging: 1) Latino voters are increasingly acting as a unified voting bloc; and 2) they are moving solidly Democratic. One thing drives this trend: xenophobia and racial violence all couched as part of the “immigration debate.”

The national Democratic Party and the national Republican Party are tied for doing nothing much when it comes to federal reforms related to immigration. But one party is clearing making at least failed overtures to the Latino electorate on this count. At the same time the other party is actively courting the contingent within its electorate that represents the equivalent of the White Citizens Council to Latinos today.

The article from Virginia is interesting for the unspoken tension it possesses. Local and regional party organizations are not always in step with their national party when it comes to these stances or their unwillingness to reach out to Latinos. But intentions in this environment get you very little.

In the 1990s, when California Republicans launched into their massive crusade against “illegal immigrants” the Latino population naturalized in huge numbers, registered to vote, and turned our sometimes red and sometimes blue state into a solidly blue chunk of political change. The same is happening in Texas, though to a more measured result. Within 10 years the same will happen to Arizona.

They key here is that Latino voters are not all that up for grabs. The Republicans are losing the contest for their hearts and loyalties because they aren’t even really playing. The Democrats, who struggle to be successful on this front, look like golden gods by comparison.

We are not just “minority” voters. We are increasingly a significant part of a plurality, even in time the majority. The more political “experts” get their heads around that, the more likely they will have a job in 20 years.

Obama’s Nobel Win is not Global Affirmative Action

When I first heard Barack Obama won the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize I reacted with a fair amount of surprise. And then terror.

While I have only been a lukewarm supporter of the President’s initial period in office–less than impressed with his commitment to corporate welfare, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and avoidance of issues confronting immigrant and LGBT equality–I am an avid ally of him as a fellow person of color.

I can appreciate the difficulty of a fairly progressive-minded, person of color has when they occupy the most powerful political seat in this nation.  We are a nation that has refused in bold and multiple ways to confront its white supremacist past, and the powerfully lingering ways that past structures our present.  The social and cultural baggage of more than two centuries of this great failure is lifted and carried by all those who choose to bear its load, and all people of color whether or not they so choose.  Barack Obama, in many ways, carries a share beyond measure.

So when I heard he had won, the second thing that came to my mind was that this would be used by his opponents.  When I opened up my news app to read about the award, one of the first voices I read was Republican chairman Michael Steele’s who asked “What has President Obama actually accomplished?” Most early coverage grappled with this question, baffled by the President’s distinction coming at a time when he officiates over two wars and struggles on the domestic front to secure his and his party’s agenda.  What I knew would be coming were even more racially-infused analyses, ones putting his award into question as they imply he was nothing more than a recipient of global affirmative action.

While I, too, was surprised that Obama won the award, it is not an unjustified recognition.

The U.S. has a difficult time thinking beyond its borders, and making sense of this award is nearly all about that.  The Nobel Committee bestowed this distinction not for his domestic struggles but for his leadership on the global stage.  While we are stuck in the health care and immigration debates–both of which DO relate to hemispheric peace–our President has also been acting for peace in the global arena.  Whether in his support of a nuclear free world, or for meaningful efforts to check global warming, Obama has been active in progressive ways beyond our borders.

Of course, he has already begun accumulating a list of omissions on that same stage, issues and conflicts to which he and his administration have been all too silent, or vocal in less than productive ways.  But the award is not a litmus test of issues as much as it is a process of possibility.

And here is where race may be involved.  There is a powerful element to his international distinction that comes with his race.  It is not just because he is black, but this distinction does come from the ways he is connected to his blackness.  That might seem confusing, but it’s really not.  Barack Obama has made himself a national and international voice for those who do not have one.  In his consistent rhetoric (and in measured ways beyond) he has shown that the issues confronting the poor and the marginalized are significant and worthy of deliberation at the highest of political levels.  Perhaps more important is the sense of moral imperative he gives to these issues.  This is, I think, a significant component to the way he is regarded on the world stage.  As a black man who advocates for the issues confronting the “global South”–the masses of poor and hungry being victimized by war and other government machinations–who are both nonwhite and the majority of this globe, Obama has become a force of good and, potentially, much more good for the world.

Obama is, in global terms, an authentic voice for the world’s oppressed.  Some of this comes from nothing other than being who he is.  But all of it comes from his unwillingness to forget and depart from who he is.

The most significant thing he has done this year that has received less than the attention it deserved was his trip to the African continent.  That this was under the radar on the US domestic scene has probably as much to do with the Obama White House than anything else.  Timed to be part of a weekend, when press coverage is low, his administration might have feared the radical white backlash that would rather predictably come with a the nation’s first black President traveling to Africa.  The escalation of the “birthers” and the mainstreaming of their message didn’t help.

But it was a powerful weekend.  I still don’t think we, as a nation, have a firm grasp of the awesomely tragic ways European imperialism and slavery transformed the world.  I am quite certain we don’t appreciate the ways most of the global South continues to feel their affects.  While we think of these as things that have passed, they have no such luxury.  For those reasons, I am also quite certain few of us could appreciate the significance of a nonwhite person, in his capacity as the de facto head of the First World, symbolically “returning” to the Third World.  I don’t think we can fully appreciate the inherent possibility for change that brings with it.

Today, I think the Nobel selection committee did.

Feminism and the high court

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Sonia Sotomayor’s statement about being a “wise Latina woman”:

I’m sure she meant no more than what I mean when I say: Yes, women bring a different life experience to the table. All of our differences make the conference better. That I’m a woman, that’s part of it, that I’m Jewish, that’s part of it, that I grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., and I went to summer camp in the Adirondacks, all these things are part of me.

In an amazingly candid interview with the New York Times, Ginsburg spoke out being the only woman on the court, the Sotomayor nomination, and a host of other related issues. It is a rare and illuminating opportunity to hear such talk from a sitting Justice. Check it out.


Enough of the “Race Card”; Let’s Talk About the Whole Deck

Does the United States become more equal, more equitable, and more just over time? Is it a forward progression that never turns back? Does it just happen? Or does it take work and struggle?

As a teacher of race and ethnicity, I find all the recent political talk about “playing the race card” suggestive of what we call a “teachable moment.” This concept which has so many meanings and uses (a floating signifier of sorts) is a rich example of many of our most significant gaps in understanding with respect to “race” in both our past and present social relations.

One of the things I find most interesting about its usage is the ways it is reflective of the fervent belief that “we” as a nation have become more racially tolerant and fair over time. “Playing the race card”—whether it means accusing whites of manipulating racial prejudice, securing support via white guilt, or any number of other actions—is seen transgressive. Doing so is seemingly suggestive of our collective racial past instead of our present. We become seemingly uncomfortable if the race of the candidate is even brought up, let alone if their race is somehow used in their campaign. Progress equals silencing of racial differences.

None of this meets my mind as progressive. In fact, I don’t see it as progress at all. Most of the racially-focused political dialogue I’ve heard in the past month leaves me thinking “we” haven’t moved all that much from the past.

Last week, while re-reading Edmund Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia—a classic in U.S. historical scholarship—I was struck by the historian’s analysis, first published in 1975. He wrote:

The men who came together to found the independent United States, dedicated to freedom and equality, either had slaves or were willing to join hands with those who did. None of them felt entirely comfortable about the fact, but neither did they feel responsible for it. Most of them had inherited both their slaves and their attachment to freedom from an earlier generation, and they knew that the two were not unconnected. The rise of liberty and equality in America had been accompanied by the rise of slavery.

That two such seemingly contradictory developments were taking place simultaneously over a long period of time, from the seventeenth century to the nineteenth, is the central paradox of American history. For the historian it poses a challenge to probe the connection: to explain how a people could have developed the dedication to human liberty and dignity exhibited by the leaders of the American Revolution and at the same time have developed and maintained a system of labor that denied human liberty and dignity every hour of the day…

To a large degree it may be said that Americans bought their independence with slave labor.

As I read these lines, I thought how they seemed radical not only for their time but for mine. If these words had been written in the 1990s, they would have been met by an organized movement of conservatives, criticizing this kind of analysis as “anti-American” or “revisionist.” This movement took shape after the time Morgan’s book was published. It helped elect Ronal Reagan and, in many ways, turned back the tide on civil rights. Yes, time does not always bring with it progress and betterment.

In his 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King Jr. responded to the suggestion that civil rights protests were unrealistic in their demand for immediate change, since justice is inevitable, in time. He wrote:

Such an attitude stems from a tragic misconception of time, from the strangely rational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually, time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively.

In practical terms, Morgan’s analysis isn’t precious. I mean, is far more radical things are published by mainstream academic presses every month. Yet it is hardly commonplace. To me, it served as a reminder of how social progress does not always unfold over time. That such a direct and provable assertion could still be seen as a radical revision of the traditional interpretation of the U.S. past is, in itself, sort of depressing.

Likewise, one of the sobering realities of our current political discourse is that we have failed terribly in our collective effort to learn from the struggles of the past. Acknowledgment of race was never the problem. The problem was how that acknowledgment served a system of white supremacy. Today, we can add to that the myriad ways our avoidance of acknowledging race serves that same system.

Quoted texts can be found in Edmund S. Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1975), 4-5; and Martin Luther King Jr., “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” April 16, 1963. King’s letter was first published in the The Christian Century, June 12, 1963.

Obama, Gay Marriage, and the Latino Vote

In his 2001 collection of articles titled Magical Urbanism: Latinos Reinvent the US Big City, author Mike Davis described Latinos as a political “sleeping dragon.” Contextualizing just some of their historic political disenfranchisement from a system that simply did not care about them or their interests and needs, and contrasting that with their emerging demographic growth, he saw them as a political force about to awaken.

I believe 2008 will be largely seen as that moment when the “sleeping dragon” awoke. From the current fixation on the issue of immigration; to a widespread and diverse anti-Latino racism fueling regulations meant to continue their marginalization; to a rash of federal raids nurturing fear and causing both emotional and economic hardship; to the two main political parties seeking to garner the votes of an unknown and little understood electorate, 2008 is shaping up to be the political “coming out”–or quinceañera–party for Latinos.

The question is, what will this dragon do? Will they support Obama or McCain? Will they lean to the left or to the right? Current polls suggest what Latino scholars and pundits have been suggesting for months now: the Latino support for Clinton will easily transfer to Obama in the fall election while McCain will post decent numbers due to his previous support for immigration reform.

But don’t be too sure. This quinceañera is anything but predictable. While you’ve seen the Obama “Sí Se Puede” video in Spanish, and can already imagine the growing excitement within certain quarters of the Latino electorate to elect a person of color to the “highest position in the land,” issues like gay marriage are competing to sway Latinos to the right this fall. All-in-all, the dragon may be scorching a few of us this November.

While most will see this year as the actual political emergence of Latinos, it is not. Latinos have been “announcing” their political presence for generations. But that voice has rarely been heard or measured in a national sense.

Latinos have been politically active since the United States invaded and conquered the northern two-fifths of their nation in the U.S.-Mexico War (1846-1848). In the wake of the military conquest came the political and economic conquest, a time of sustained marginalization and political disenfranchisement. Upper-class Mexicans often served as part of that process, trying to align themselves with the U.S. newcomers, often at the expense of the poor, laboring class of (most often mixed-race) Mexicans and Indians who made up the majority of the population. Those masses often engaged in informal kinds of political acts, like banditry, the creation of community organizations and institutions, and other forms of resistance. [See see Acuña 2006; Chávez-García 2004; Hurtado 1990; and Pitt1969]

In the early 20th century, Puerto Ricans, Cubans, and Mexicans organized trade unions, mutual aide societies, and political clubs throughout the U.S. In the 1920s middle-class professionals in Texas founded LULAC, an organization promoting both cultural and political assimilation of Mexican Americans into mainstream U.S. society. In the 1930s, a host of labor and political organizations protested the forced and illegal deportation of more than 125,000 Mexicans from the Southwest, most of which were legal, U.S.-born citizens. Beginning in the same period, Puerto Ricans in New York began to mobilize in East Harlem to have a political voice. They eventually secured educational rights for their children and, after WWII, helped elect a socialist to the House of Representatives. In the 1940s and 1950s a growing number of organizations like American G.I Forum, MAPA, and the CSO also fought to secure the political rights of Mexicans and Mexican Americans in a time of rising expectations and growing frustrations with a system that struggled to practice the “freedom and democracy” it preached. [See Acuña 2006; Whalen, et. al. 2005; Sánchez Korrol 1983]

In the 1960s, Mexican Americans and Puerto Ricans mobilized behind the first formal, national electorate endeavors seeking to register and win the support of Latino voters. These campaigns–called “Viva Kennedy” and, later, “Viva Johnson”–were the first time a presidential campaign reached out to Latinos. In the case of Kennedy in 1960, these efforts may have proved crucial to his victory, at the time, the slimmist in U.S. History.

From the 1960s onward, as the Democratic Party became the national party of Civil Rights in the realm of education, work, voting, and public housing, a kind of “Civil Rights Coalition” developed uniting most voters of color, with unionized working class voters, and others. It was not until the 1980s, and the candidacy of Ronald Regan, that any noticeable challenges were made to this coalition (as he chipped away at the working-class white base of the Democratic Party)

Latino Voters and the Recent Past
Though Regan supported and secured major immigration legislation (the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986), Latino voters remained largely Democratic with a handful of local exceptions. The 1990s further swayed them to the left as the Republican Party, in a host of both big states and border states, began supporting restrictive measures targeting Latinos and other populations of color. The various anti-Affirmative Action campaigns in California, Michigan, Texas, and Florida, as well as efforts like California’s Proposition 187, helped politically educate an electorate coming of age.

Bill Clinton received the benefit of these decades of political machinations in his election and reelection bids in the 1990s. In 1996, even after supporting legislation that militarized the border and increased border deaths by shocking degrees, he won the Latino vote handily. In Texas, he won more than three quarters of them. He won them in California. He even came close to winning the Cuban American vote, at the time still unquestionably Republican.

George Bush entered the national political arena with the reputation of a pro-Latino, border state governor. In 2000, that got him a respectable third of the Latino vote, this despite the Democratic Patry’s seemingly secure lock on raza. In 2004, much to everybody’s surprise, he was reelected with as much as 44% of the Latino electorate.

How did conservative begin to tap into Latino America? One way was gay marriage.

Before I go on it is important for me to clarify that Latinos are not any more homophobic than anyone else. If you are about to analyze the numbers of Latinos who are anti-gay marriage as proof of “these people’s homophobia,” just check yourself. Remember, Latinos–like white voters, Black voters, Native American voters, and Asian voters–are diverse in their beliefs and shortcomings.

Gay Marriage as a Conservative Electoral Strategy
Clearly, Karl Rove deserves a lot of credit with regards to Bush’s victory in 2004, both with Latino and non-Latino voters. Part of that strategy was to force the conservative base to come out, a bloc whose votes represent a small but solid margin upon which to build a victory in any number of swing states. One of the primary issues that brought them out was gay marriage.

In 11 states (some of them clear swing states), Republicans ran anti-gay marriage ballot initiatives, though in each case gay marriage was already illegal. This is an important thing to remember. This was a time when both federal and state laws effectively made these unions not only illegal, buy unlikely to become legal in the near future. The one exception was Massachusetts, which had recently become the first state to allow same-sex couples to marry.

Now the new exception is California. And California will be joined this fall by others in confronting new anti-gay marriage ballot initiatives in the polling booth. The states include Arizona, Florida, and possibly others. Arkansas has an initiative to ban same-sex couples from adopting.

Without question, Latinos–heavily Catholic and prone to conservative issues in the social arena–are among the constituencies of support for these homophobic measures. But they are also the same for other progressive measures, including the efforts to defeat these ballot initiatives.

Where will they fall?

The Outlook in 2008
As the Los Angeles Times and many others have reported, the results of a recent Gallup Poll show Obama beating McCain among likely Latino voters 62% to 29%. But these numbers are not fixed in stone. One of the issues that has the potential to sway Latino voters will be the issue of gay marriage.

This is an issue that can go both ways. While conservative homophobes may have an upper hand on the surface, the pro-egalitarian side of the debate also has the potential to resonate with Latinos. The question is, who will get to them first?

My great fear is that, in California and elsewhere, the coalitions fighting against these restrictive ballot measures won’t reach out in any organized and systematic way to Latino voters. This may be a huge mistake, because, I assure you, the other side already is.

The anti-gay marriage coalition is surprisingly diverse and, most importantly, grass roots. They are made up of small organizations, on the ground, who can reach out to and mobilize voters. They were ready to get their measure on the California ballot before the State Supreme Court even issued their decision on May 15th [see the San Francisco Chronicle article on this here]. And, as should be of no surprise to anyone following Latino politics and religion, a core constituency group of this grassroots coalition are Latino churches.

A list of the organizations composing the coalition in California can be found here. Among them are a host of Latinos and Latino organizations. The Alliance for Marriage, a national coalition responsible for the upcoming ballot proposition in California, includes even more. Their Board of Advisors includes a list of politically mobilized Latino evangelicals who are already beginning their efforts to win over Spanish-speaking voters this fall.

Latinos are in many ways less homophobic than the average U.S. American. This may surprise many people “north of the border,” but it is a strong lesson in the ability of homophobic practices to change to fit the circumstance. Latin American Catholicism is almost always less absolute than Anglo American Puritanism. That said, Latinos in the U.S. are also more religious than the typical U.S. American voter. The issue of gay marriage in 2008 may be the focal point upon which this vote pivots.

Pro-Immigrant Coalitions Suggest the Solution but Reflect the Problem

This year’s May Day events are already underway throughout the world. In parts of Southeast Asia, May Day marches have been protesting the rise in food prices as well as advocating for workers’ rights. In Turkey, labor unions were met with government repression and police abuse as they marches and attempted to congregate in a noted public center. In Germany, scattered violence and rioting occurred when leftists went to battle with the police. In Greece, Cuba, and China workers also participated in events. In Greece, workers staged a day-long strike protesting privatization; in Cuba, Raul Castro sat for speeches from the nation’s only union; in China everyone celebrated what is a national holiday.

Around the world, workers’ rose up for their rights, whether those be the right to a fair wage, the right to affordable food, or the right to be free from government corruption.

In Los Angeles, as in several other urban sites around the U.S., labor and immigrant rights advocates are standing in solidarity for what has become a yearly movement to promote the rights of immigrant workers. That coalition of unions and immigrant groups is also joined by business leaders in the case of U.S. politics. Today’s L.A. Times reported on the supportive stance by the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce with respect to immigrants’ rights. This broad coalition are demanding an end to rampant government raids as well as reforms in legislation providing for a legalization pathway for the undocumented.

Coalitions which represent a broad base of support are important for securing meaningful change in a democratic system. As a scholar of social movements (you can see one of my college courses here), I know the recent past has seen too few instances of truly democratic coalition but, when it has, those movements have produced profound changes, whether in the systems of power they targeted or in the communities of which they were a part.

The immigration issue in this country is only going to be solved by such representative coalitions. As an immigrant rights advocate, I am happy to have seen such forms of mobilization become the trend with respect to these issues. Since the 1980s, immigrant rights organizations have been joined in their efforts by labor unions, churches, antiwar/anti-imperialism factions, human rights groups, and now business leaders.

But, those of us seeking true immigration reform should keep in mind not all parties come to a coalition for the same reason. While the visions for a better future held by business and human rights organizations converge on the desire for an end to raids and the passage of reform legislation, they do not have the same utopian visions for the future beyond. Business interests are pro-immigrant because they see in immigrants a cheap and plentiful supply of labor. They profit from the precarious status of undocumented labor; worse yet, they exploit that labor. [Read Miriam Ching Yoon Louie’s powerful 2001 book Sweatshop Warriors if you think this isn’t the case.]

Immigration raids hurt businesses who employ both documented and undocumented immigrant workers.  They also promote fear among businesses located in high immigration centers who might employ lots of Latino workers who are not immigrants at all.  In those and other ways, raids are bad business.  They are so bad, businesses who exploit immigrant labor would rather have that labor be legal than illegal just to end them.

But such motivations are not humanistic.  They do nothing to challenge the commodification of people’s bodies, the racialized assumptions which serve as the backbone of a segmented labor market, or the ultimate belief in profit over people.  This coalition is the model of what a successful immigrant  rights’ movement  does look like, but it is also the problem.  The unity reflected today will only last as long as the immigration reform movement stays in the comfortable position of not fundamentally challenging the problem at hand.