To date, the defining dynamic of the fight for the Democratic nomination has been race versus gender—which will the left symbolically end first? Race won, once Clinton’s race-baiting went several bread crumbs too far. Major upheavals both likely and notwithstanding, the dilemma now facing both candidates, but especially Obama, will be surfing the coming tsunami between blacks and Hispanics, America’s largest minority group. All that’s at stake is the disintegration of the Democratic coalition.
Obama is running 3 to 1 behind Clinton among Latinos (25 percent of the electorate) in vote-rich California, for instance, with Super Tuesday looming. Similar realities confront him across America. If Obama wants to be the nominee—and survive his first term as Prez—he’ll have to close that gap without alienating blacks, a tightrope I would happily ask my worst enemy to walk. What’s the brother to do?
He’s no doubt sincere in his sympathy for the realities that Hispanics—especially the illegals—face, and keenly aware of the politico-economic realities surrounding the hotbed immigration issue. He’s also quite aware that blacks are—let’s go with—’conservative’ on (Hispanic) immigration and its consequences. He can gamble that they will give him the same pass they gave President Clinton over Sister Souljah, Lani Guinier and welfare reform but that’s doubling down with your high school senior’s college fund. That is not only true where black-brown collisions are overt (blacks displaced by brown, lower-wage workers) but also as Obama will be seen to simply be paying ‘too much’ attention to brown concerns, spending ‘too much’ time with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus rather than the Congressional Black Caucus. You can diss blacks for John, but for Jose? Bet Obama wishes he could talk about black homophobia some more. Instead, hideously, he has to talk about this:
Obama’s intention is to draw distinctions between himself and Clinton on what are otherwise indistinguishable positions on immigration. Both have adopted the standard Democratic approach of favoring tougher enforcement along with earned legalization.
The Illinois senator is differentiating himself in three key areas: driver’s licenses, a promise to take up immigration reform his first year in office, and his background as the son of an immigrant (his father was Kenyan) and a community organizer in Chicago.
Obama made the promise to Latino leaders to take up immigration reform in his first year after Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill., chairman of the Democratic caucus, said his party might not raise the divisive issue again until the next president’s second term, assuming a Democrat wins.
Latino leaders felt betrayed. For them, an immigration overhaul is a top priority in light of state and local crackdowns on illegal immigrants and federal raids in workplaces across the country.
Clinton has not made such a promise, saying only that she would make her best efforts.
Obama stalwartly took the dare on this knowing he won’t need to Ebay a crystal ball to figure out that what Latinos mean by “overhaul” and what blacks do are something close to polar opposites. And where jobs (and wage level in particular) are concerned, feelings can only run high, run deep and run personal. But for all the ink spilled on the black–Hispanic stand off, we keep missing the point.
It’s not about which group experiences or has absorbed the most racism; it’s not about which group suffers more. If we keep our heads, it’s much less serious than that. It’s pure interest-group politics, a reality which only confuses us because the king of all interest groups—powerful white men—culturally defined the term to mean ‘illegitimate, unAmerican cabal,’ i.e., every group but them. So, we spend time fighting about who’s an ‘interest group,’ when we all belong to several, rather than how to navigate the natural chasms separating each. Each group, however much they overlap, cares deeply about its own problems while remaining more or less blasé about others’. In the case of blacks versus Hispanics, racism and skin color are the age-old distractions the powerful have always employed to keep the powerless at each other’s throats when they have so much incentive to join forces. Because they have so much incentive. No group should have to apologize for looking out for itself, just as no group has the right to have its preferences made impervious to critique.
Clinton is merely going to triangulate to divine the path of least resistance for greatest gain and work for political Pareto optimality; she’s going to upset the traditional apple carts as little as possible. But if Obama is to live up to his visionary, trans-everything reputation, he has to do more than that. He has to elevate the discourse itself and sweetly force each group to ‘come to Jesus’ and take a good, hard look in the mirror. All, of course, while providing each a face-saving way toward the high road. You don’t have to confess or testify. You just have to change. He has to make both groups—all groups—believe it’s taking the high road when it’s merely giving up unfair advantages or unreasonable positions.
There are fancier ways of saying this, but since offense can’t be avoided with those determined to be offended, let’s apply the KISS rule and save some pixels: Just as whites aren’t much interested in black problems (“nobody gave my immigrant great grandfather—who didn’t own slaves—special treatment”), blacks are shockingly unmoved by Hispanics’ problems and vice versa. Blacks, quite reasonably, have little reverence for immigration and resent the most often repeated lie in America: “We are a nation of immigrants.” Kunta Kinte did not come here to make his life better. So, while the non-slave-descended get all misty-eyed about immigration and can potentially be reached via arguments based on that shared experience, blacks remain aloof.
Latinos, conversely, don’t much care about slavery and Jim Crow—look at what we’ve been through!—except as proof of racism and insofar as the latter affected them. Those experiences occurred through no fault of theirs, so why, they reasonably argue, shouldn’t they, too, employ the same type of race-based proportional representation and affirmative action arguments that blacks have long made? Why indeed?
Blacks relied on enforcing the Constitution, an unforeseen, unthinkable argument which could not be forever denied, much to white consternation. Now Hispanics invoke the rubric of ‘civil rights.’ Oh, snap! Until now, blacks haven’t been forced to accept that they really seem to have meant ‘black rights’. (Recall that Malcolm X and MLK found little traction among blacks for the transnational directions in which those two visionaries were moving.) Obama needs to make them answer the question: Civil rights or black rights? You can make the argument that the movement is inapplicable to immigrants (and gays), or only to illegal immigrants—so let’s hear it.
What we’re witnessing here is the slow, agonizing death of identity politics, the scourge that white supremacy bequeathed America. Identity politics, just as did overt racism and white supremacy, is collapsing under the weight of its own contradictions. And it is collapsing in Hispanics’ favor. Damn logical and moral consistency. As blacks like to bitterly say in dismissing Latinos’ (or gays’) invocation of movement rhetoric, “Y’all weren’t on the Edmund Pettus Bridge.” True enough. Tough noogies. Unless blacks are ready to put an ‘expire by’ date on the “Letter From the Birmingham Jail.”
Hispanics may be ‘free riders’ on the civil rights movement but they’re free riders who can’t be thrown off the bus without blacks admitting that ‘civil rights’ was as much a code word as ‘states’ rights’. If Obama does his job right, we’ll soon get to see how the same black officials who fought for affirmative action, proportional representation on police/fire forces, civil government, political re-districting, etc. can dismiss the same Latino demand. Conservatives and the DLC crowd are dismissing Obama’s Hispanic overtures as mere pandering. I say give the brother a minute. He may yet pander. But we need to give him some room to see if he’s actually going to try to lead. MLK had a much harder job, but he helped America see the error of its ways. Let’s see if Obama is his true heir. Let’s see if he can make minorities see the error of theirs and avoid engaging in the same sort of soulless bigotry and greed their ancestors died to end.
Just as the discussions over Hillary’s laughter and tears, and Barack’s ‘true’ race and religion were heinous to endure, so shall be this discussion. But it must be had. Until we say these things out loud and confront ourselves, we won’t be able to realize just how untenable some of our sacred cows are.