The slugfest between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, in which only the most painstaking analyst can discern any disagreement over policy, highlights the ancient yet growing importance of ethnic identity in politics.
The race didn’t start out that way. The 2007 polls showed that blacks favored Senator Clinton, the wife of “America’s first black president,” over Senator Obama, the preppie from paradise. Yet when the crunch came, four-fifths of black Democratic primary voters rallied to the yuppie technocrat’s banner.
Shaken by the defection of an ethnicity Hillary had assumed was hereditarily hers, the Clinton campaign then pointed to the Latino vote as its “firewall.” And in the important California primary, Hispanics did vote 67 percent to 32 percent for the former first lady. Elsewhere, however, the vaunted Hispanic bloc didn’t quite live up to expectations. Hillary responded to her Super Tuesday woes by firing her Hispanic campaign manager, Patti Solis Doyle, and replacing her with Maggie Williams, who is black. As I write, Mrs. Clinton is left hoping that Latinos will bail her out in the upcoming Texas primary.
The multiracialization of American politics has barely begun. When it comes to identity politics, numbers count. And a new population projection from the Pew Research Center estimates that Hispanics will grow from 42 million in 2005 to a jaw-dropping 128 million in 2050. Meanwhile, African Americans will increase from 38 million to 57 million. (Caucasians will barely creep over the 200 million mark, presumably on the strength of Middle Eastern immigration.)
The relationship between blacks and Latinos will become increasingly central to American life, but it’s a murky phenomenon, poorly understood by the white-dominated press.
Despite the hype, the Latino electorate has been growing much less impressively than the Latino population. Although Hispanics comprise about 15 percent of the residents of this country, they only cast 5.8 percent of the votes in the 2006 midterm elections, according to the Pew Hispanic Center’s crunching of the raw data from the Census Bureau’s big biennial voting survey. That was up from 5.3 percent in 2002—steady growth but hardly the political tsunami that we’ve been told about over and over. In contrast, blacks accounted for 10.3 percent of the vote, 77 percent more than Hispanics.
Thus it’s far better, especially in the Democratic primaries, to get four-fifths of the black vote, as Obama does, than two-thirds of the Hispanic vote, as Mrs. Clinton does. Although Clinton has typically beaten Obama among whites, Obama does well enough that his large margin among black Democrats keeps him competitive. (Clinton’s secret weapon has been Asians, who sided with her 71-25 percent in California.)
One reason the black-Hispanic relationship is poorly understood is that class intersects with ethnicity in complex ways. At the bottom of society, among prison and street gangs, race rules. In the Los Angeles County jail, which is 60 percent Hispanic and 30 percent black, the two groups fought murderous battles in 2006. Last October, federal prosecutors accused the Florencia 13 street gang of trying to ethnically cleanse blacks from its unincorporated neighborhood in LA County. (The political impact of this violence shouldn’t be exaggerated, though. The respectable folk who do most of the voting don’t approve of gangbangers feuding.)
In poorer neighborhoods, black residents feel uneasy about men speaking Spanish around them. Not being able to understand what is being said robs them of their street smarts. Are the two men next to you at the bus stop talking in Spanish about soccer or are they plotting to mug you? Who knows?
At the top of the power structure, in the House of Representatives and state legislatures, blacks and Latinos get along quite well, united by party (92 percent of elected Hispanics are Democrats) and a mutual desire to keep the affirmative action gravy train chugging along. Ward Connerly, a black opponent of ethnic quotas, has noted that when he was a regent of the University of California, the heaviest pressure on the regents to cheat on the anti-preference language written into the state constitution by Prop. 209 came not from the Black Caucus in the legislature but from the larger Latino Caucus. They threatened to cut UC’s budget unless more Hispanic applicants were admitted.
Black politicians tend to view Hispanics today much as Irish politicos once saw their fellow Catholic Poles: silent partners in their coalition who should be grateful for their natural leaders’ experience and charm. Not surprisingly, Hispanics don’t agree. In some of the formerly all-black slum municipalities just south of Los Angeles, where Hispanics now make up the great majority of residents but only half of voters, ethnic politics has gotten nasty. But overall, Hispanic politicians know that time is on their side, so they can be patient about the arrogance of black colleagues.
In the middle levels of society, blacks and Latinos do compete. Relations aren’t warm, but African-American men have tended to cede blue-collar jobs to immigrants without putting up massive resistance. Moreover, the swelling numbers and various dysfunctions of illegal immigrants generate numerous jobs for civil servants (who are typically required to be citizens). Therefore, many blacks are paid by taxpayers to teach, police, guard, administer, and otherwise deal with illegal aliens. It doesn’t make for trans-ethnic amity, but it’s a living.
There’s another reason that black-Hispanic relations are poorly understood. Americans just don’t pay much attention to Latinos. In American public discourse, Hispanics, especially Mexican-Americans, who now number about 30 million, remain what interstellar “dark matter” is to astrophysicists—a quantitatively significant yet mysteriously featureless aspect of the universe.
This is not for a lack of motivation on the part of America’s corporate and political elites. Consultants have been trumpeting the growing numbers of Hispanics for a generation. Marketers have been lusting for the emergence of more Mexican-American celebrities to plug their products at least since Nancy Lopez’s record-setting 1978 LPGA rookie season made her the most popular female golfer ever.
Although the media constantly tries to drum up interest in Hispanics by extolling them as “swing voters” living in “vibrant neighborhoods” and so forth, the tedious reality is that the word that best sums up Latino America is inertia. Things just sort of keep on keeping on in the general direction that they were already moving. While Obama-mania sweeps the more fashion-frenzied white Democrats, Hispanics have stuck by the name brand they know.
Despite long-standing predictions that Americans will soon become fascinated by all things Latin, the public remains much more interested in African-Americans. In popular culture, trends flow from African-Americans to Mexican-Americans. The latter listen to hip-hop, but the former will not listen to music featuring accordions and trumpets. There have been exceptions—the bouncing lowrider cars that were popular in old-school rap videos were a Mexican-American invention—but black remains cooler than brown. Professional trendspotter Irma Zandl admitted in 2003 to American Demographics, a market research trade publication, that her biggest mistake had been predicting the increasing Latinization of American culture back in 1988. Fifteen years later, “there are still no mass fashion trends, no mass entertainment trends, no mass social trends rooted in the Hispanic culture.” While there are a number of prominent Cubans, Puerto Ricans and other Caribbean Hispanics, there are still remarkably few famous Mexican-Americans.
Consider the forgotten man of the 2008 Democratic race, former energy secretary and UN ambassador Bill Richardson. Quantitatively, Richardson out-Obamas Obama. Is the Illinois senator half-minority? Well, the New Mexico governor is three-fourths minority. Did Obama live from ages 6 to 10 in a fairly important foreign country, Indonesia? Richardson lived from 1 to 13 among the power elite of the country that has the most direct impact on America, Mexico. But nobody cared, and Richardson quietly dropped out. Black simply trumps Mexican in the fascination sweepstakes.
This lack of interest hasn’t stopped white commentators from theorizing about the impact of immigration they would find if they bothered to look. George Will, for instance, has long argued that Latin American immigration is solving America’s racial problem, which he sees as resulting from the traditional American “one drop of blood” rule of thumb for determining race. South of the border, in contrast, racial lines are not as distinctly drawn.
Yet after almost 500 years of intermarriage, most of Latin America still has a quite white ruling class. Darker men who rise up in society tend to marry fairer women, so their descendents are lighter-looking. Thus the genes of the successful rabble-rousers and self-made men get absorbed into the overclass.
It remains to be seen whether Hispanics turn the rest of America away from the one drop of blood theory or vice-versa. Certainly, contra Will, Obama has only benefited from his ardent embrace of the one-drop rule. Although the candidate was raised by the white side of his family in multiracial Hawaii, where mixed-race children have been unexceptional for generations, he strenuously rejected Hawaiian haziness about racial identity. Obama moved to the black slums of Chicago to work as an ethnic activist, joined a stridently Afrocentrist church, and then went into discrimination law so he could sue white-run institutions. The lessons for ambitious young Hispanics would seem clear: ethnic solidarity among minorities is the American way to political success.
Latinos now have a full complement of civil-rights organizations, such as the National Council of La Raza (The Race), modeled on the black prototypes and usually well-subsidized by establishment heavyweights such as the Ford Foundation. Still, copying the black grievance machine hasn’t quite paid off as well as Latino activists had hoped. The institutions are staffed by would-be Alberto Sharptons and Jesus Jacksons, but these leaders tend to lack followers. For example, Hispanic politicians’ protests over Clinton firing Solis Doyle barely made a ripple. One impediment is a low level of trust of strangers, including co-ethnics, among Latinos. Harsh experience has taught Mexicans to put little faith in anybody beyond the extended family.
When millions of illegal immigrants waving Mexican flags and demanding amnesty marched in the streets of America in the spring of 2006, the English-language media was baffled as to which shadowy leaders had turned these throngs out. (The chief answer proved unexciting: funny disc jockeys on Spanish-language radio stations.) And when the illegal aliens didn’t show up at the 2007 marches, the English-language media didn’t know why either.
The language barrier is one clear reason for the charisma gap between African-Americans and Latinos. Yet the Manhattan-Beltway center-right pundits’ assumption that Hispanics are all new immigrants who will assimilate seamlessly as soon as they learn English is wrong. For example, Sen. Ken Salazar claims his ancestors arrived in Santa Fe before the Mayflower landed at Plymouth Rock. Hispanics have a long history in America, yet other Americans haven’t much noticed, which allows white intellectuals to make up whatever theories they prefer a priori about what Hispanic immigration portends.
In contrast, African-American history does not lack publicity. A new study by a Stanford researcher asked 2,000 high-school juniors and seniors to name the ten most famous Americans who weren’t presidents. The top three were Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and Harriet Tubman. Although Hispanics now make up over one-fifth of public school students, there were no Spanish surnames on this top-ten list.
Neither do they make much impact at the ballot box. Many are illegal aliens. Moreover, legal immigrants from Mexico are less likely than any other nationality to bother becoming U.S. citizens. (Although American whites tend to see Mexico as tragic and comic, Mexican immigrants love their native land and dream of returning home for their retirement.) And Mexican-American citizens are less likely to register and vote. They tend to find the drama of their private lives more compelling than public affairs.
Hispanics do find their way to the polls in the presidential elections at slightly higher percentages than in the more boring midterm races—6.0 percent in 2004, up from 5.4 percent in 2000. Still, it’s unlikely they will reach 7.0 percent of voters in 2008. Plus, the Mexican-American vote is concentrated in Democratic California and Republican Texas, so the Electoral College makes them less important in presidential elections than even their overall paltry numbers suggest.
Nor are illegal aliens a hot-button issue for Latinos, as Obama discovered to his pain in California where he campaigned in favor of issuing drivers licenses to illegal aliens, while Hillary was on record as being opposed. A 2002 Pew-Kaiser poll of 2,929 registered Hispanic voters found 48 percent believe there are too many immigrants in this country, while only 7 percent said there are too few.
But when the pollsters rephrased the question to specifically mention “Latin American immigrants,” the Hispanic voters switched, with 36 percent now saying “Allow more” and only 21 percent choosing “Reduce the number.” Evidently, while immigration can be ex-ploited as an emotional ethnic pride issue among Hispanic voters, on objective grounds most Latino voters are negative toward illegal aliens. After all, they bear the brunt of the lower wages, overcrowded housing, and overwhelmed public schools and hospitals. However, their ambivalence toward illegal immigration is not reflected among their self-appointed leaders, whose interest lies in simply boosting the number of warm brown bodies they can claim to represent.
In general, Hispanic voters tend to be old-fashioned tax-and-spend Democrats. In the Pew-Kaiser poll, 60 percent of Hispanics said they “would prefer to pay higher taxes to support a larger government that provides more services” compared to 35 percent of whites. Tax-and-spend politics reflect self-interest on the part of Hispanics since they tend to cluster below the national average in income and education.And they do not get much more conservative as they go up the income ladder, perhaps because higher education means more exposure to the multiculturalist mindset reigning on college campuses.
Mexican immigrants don’t bring much human capital with them. The Census Bureau recently estimated that while more than 40 percent of recent immigrants from India have an advanced degree, only about 1 percent of Mexican immigrants do. In fact, over 60 percent of Mexican immigrants have less than a high school diploma. While about 20 percent of African immigrants work in “science, engineering, technology, or health,” only about 1 percent of Mexicans do. Those who have what it takes to make it big in Mexico stay home. That may help explain why there are so few high-profile Mexican-Americans.
Pundits frequently claim that Hispanics either will or will not “assimilate,” although this always begs the question “assimilate toward whom?” It’s hard for many white intellectuals to remember that there are people in this world whose highest aspiration is not to Be Like Me.
Some Latino youths, for instance, are attracted by the glamour of African-American norms. For example, the Hispanic illegitimacy rate has grown from 19 percent in 1980 to 50 percent in 2006 (compared to 71 percent for blacks and 27 percent for whites).
That middle position is characteristic. In recent decades, Latinos have generally fallen midway between whites and blacks on most social statistics. For instance, the Hispanic imprisonment rate is 2.9 times the white imprisonment rate, while the black rate is 7.2 times more. (In contrast, the Asian imprisonment rate is only 0.22 as high.)
Latin American immigrant families tend to make strong educational progress from the first generation to the second. After that, things slow down. In 1992, the last time the National Assessment of Educational Progress test asked if students were born in the U.S., the school achievement test gap between whites and American-born Hispanics was two-thirds as large as the notoriously deleterious one between the whites and blacks.
In addition, some behavior gets worse as immigrants assimilate—illegitimacy goes up and the crime rate appears to be significantly higher among American-born Hispanics. In reality, assimilation isn’t a black or white question but a statistical one. We can be sure that some Hispanics will assimilate toward middle-class white lives, some toward underclass black customs, and many will continue to follow working-class Hispanic traditions.
Consider New Mexico, which has been home to Hispanics for four centuries and is now 44 percent Latino. Although it’s on the border, it doesn’t attract as many immigrants as Arizona, so its assimilated Hispanics should be doing well, right? In 2007, Tim Russert humiliated New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson on “Meet the Press” by reading off New Mexico’s ranking among the 50 states on a scale where one is best:
Percent of people living below the poverty line, you’re 48. Percent of children below, 48. Median family income, 47. People without health insurance, 49. Children without health insurance, 46. Teen high school dropouts, 47. Death rate due to firearms, 48. Violent crime rate, 46.
Of course, it’s hardly Richardson’s fault that in five years as governor, he hadn’t succeeded in turning New Mexicans into Minnesotans.
The sheer size of the upcoming Hispanic population makes the statistics ominous. Assume that Hispanic individuals are only, say, one-third as likely as African-Americans to fall into the underclass. That’s not so bad, right? Yet in 40 years, there will be three times as many Hispanics as there are blacks today, so the Latino underclass would then be as big as the black underclass is today.
It would be imprudent to assume that Hispanics in America will forever remain politically quiescent under uncharismatic leaders. There is tremendous pressure from within America on Hispanics to follow the path of blacks in politicizing their grievances and developing a culture of rejection. A young high-school history teacher in Arizona told me that he had initially been disturbed when his Latino students accused him of racism: “Why can’t I turn in my homework late? You let Julio turn his in late. That’s racist!” He finally realized, though, that “racist” was simply the word they had been taught by American culture to mean “unfair.”
Nor is Latin American history uniformly dull. It’s actually quite unpredictable. For example, after more than three decades of stable, unchallenged rule, the Mexican dictator Porfirio Díaz was suddenly overthrown in 1911. The Mexican Revolution went on to kill perhaps one million people. As he fled to exile in Paris, Díaz is said to have reflected, like a proto-Yogi Berra, “In Mexico, nothing ever happens until it happens.”
Similarly, much of Latin America is currently excited over the rise of leftist populist presidentes preaching racial resentment, such as Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and Evo Morales in Bolivia.
Whether this “wind from the south” will ever reach America is impossible to foresee, but we may eventually be living in interesting times.
Steve Sailer is TAC’s film critic and a columnist for VDARE.com. His blog is iSteve.Blogspot.com.