Sunday, September 23, 2012

Too Brown or Not Brown Enough: Latinos, Politics in 2012 and Beyond

2012 marked the first year that Latinos were featured as major speakers at both the Democratic and Republican National Conventions.  The next step, ascendency to a presidential candidacy, seems inevitable.  Unfortunately, Latino politicians have been subjected to the same set of potentially unfair expectations that frequently beset many young minority professionals. On the one hand, they are marked as insufficiently authentic representatives of their communities. The Daily Caller, for instance, noted Julian Castro’s poor command of Spanish[1] while Texas Republican Senate candidate Ted Cruz was chided by his primary opponent, Lt. Governor David Dewhurst, for refusing to conduct a debate in Spanish[2].  On the other hand, they may also be designated as too ethnic: In Castro’s case, his was guilty of association with his activist mother, who was described as being a radical and a racist[3].  Unlike the prior form of criticism, however, Democrats are unlikely to levy this form of criticism against Latino Republican politicians.[4]
Criticism of Barack Obama in some cases, first as a candidate, then subsequently as President, appeared to follow a similar trajectory.  Jesse Jackson, for instance, criticized Obama for “acting like he’s white” based on Obama’s initially response to the arrest of six Black youths in Jena, LA on charges of attempted murder after a school brawl[5].  On the other hand, Glenn Beck famously noted that he believed that the President “was a guy with a deep-seated hatred for white people.”[6] Moreover, as with the aforementioned Latino politicos, criticism of Black conservative politicians has been limited to the questioning the authenticity of their ethnic identity[7] rather than demonization alleging animus toward any racial majority.
 Criticisms like these initially led me to believe that an event like Obama’s victory in 2008 was unlikely. I found it more plausible that the first president of color would likely be a member of the GOP for the same sort of contradictory criticisms that I cited above.  Surely, an African-American Republican would face some criticism in some quarters as being insufficiently representative of his race.  However, given the nature of the Democratic base, these arguments would likely fall outside of the mainstream of political discourse and would surely be ineffective ways to mobilize support among Democrats against a Republican candidate.  Conversely, because political claims of racial radicalism are almost exclusively the domain of conservatives against progressives, a Republican candidate of color would have little to worry about, presuming they successfully maneuvered through their own party primaries.
Yet, Obama’s victory in 2008 defied these expectations.  A number of factors can explain that victory, none the least of which was the degree of dissatisfaction with the status quo. .In any case, these concerns continue to color my perspective on the likelihood of a successful Latino candidate.  The two Republican candidates I referenced above, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, are both of Cuban descent, while Democrat Castro is Chicano.  Cuban Americans have a long history of support for the GOP[8], while Mexican-Americans have long-standing allegiance to the Democratic Party[9].  Using the designation “Latino” as a pan-ethnic identifier may mask very real differences among ethnic groups in favor of the broader narrative of demographic dominance.  According to the Pew Research Center, among the Hispanic population in the United States, 64.9 self-identify as being of Mexican origin, versus 3.7 percent who self identify Cuban origin.[10]In the case of the Republican Party, trumpeting their diversity with references to a constituency that has long embraced their message and represents a relatively small portion of the overall Latino population may ring hollow. Defenders of the party, however, can effectively make the case that the Republican Party during George W. Bush’s administration was more keenly aware of this and made greater outreach to the larger Latino population, a point that GWB’s brother and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush has been emphasizing of late.[11]
More interesting might be Jeb Bush’s personal stake in this debate, as he himself is married to a Chicana, Columba.  Not coincidentally, political observers have long speculated that his son George Prescott Bush is an eventual heir to the Bush political dynasty. [12]Since he first emerged at the 1988 Republican National Convention at the age of 12, the young Bush has been burnishing an impressive resume befitting a future political mainstay, including military service in Afghanistan.  I have been telling my students this for well over a decade now: an eventual Presidential bid by George P. Bush seems almost inevitable.  That is a far cry from his first public appearance, where his grandfather and then Vice President George H.W. Bush described George P and his siblings to President Reagan as “Jebby's kids from Florida, the little brown ones.”[13]

That Latinos are so frequently cited as an emerging electoral force should come as little surprise by virtue of sheer demography. What that means in practice remains to be seen.  However, if George P. Bush becomes a viable candidate in 2016, his ethnicity and political affiliation may afford him advantages unavailable to his Republican and Democratic counterparts.

[1]  Geoffrey, Malloy. “DNC Speaker Julian Castro ‘Doesn't Really Speak Spanish’” The Daily Caller. Last modified September 5, 2012. Accessed September 20, 2012. <>.
[2] Graves, Lucia. “David Dewhurst Challenges Ted Cruz To Debate In Spanish.” The Huffington Post. Last modified June 4, 2012. Accessed September 20, 2012. <>.
[3] Burka, Paul. “BurkaBlog : The Second Battle of the Alamo: Fox News vs. Juli├ín Castro’s Mom.” Texas Monthly.  Last modified September 10, 2012. Accessed September 20, 2012. <>.
[4] Such references may exist, however they remain outside of the mainstream political dialogue.
[5] Burris, Roddie A. “Jackson Slams Obama for ‘Acting White’” Last modified September 19, 2007. Accessed September 23, 2012. <>.
[6] Associated Press. “Glenn Beck: Obama Is a Racist.” CBS News. Last modified July 29, 2009. Accessed September 23, 2012. <>.
[7] Republican political consultant Ron Christie devoted a whole book to the subject.  See Christie, Ron. Acting White: The Curious History of a Racial Slur. New York: Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin's Press, 2010.
[8] Miller, Bettye. “Cuban American Voters Remain in GOP Corner.” UCR Today. Last modified January 30, 2012. Accessed September 23, 2012. <>.
[9] Lopez, Mark H. “The Latino Vote in the 2010 Elections” Pew Hispanic Center. Last modified November 3, 2010. Accessed September 23,2012. <>.
[10] Motel, Seth, and Eileen Patten. “The 10 Largest Hispanic Origin Groups: Characteristics, Rankings, Top Counties.”  Pew Hispanic Center Last modified July 12, 2012. Accessed September 23, 2012. <>.
[11] Camia, Catalina. “Jeb Bush: GOP Needs to Win Back Hispanic Voters.” Last modified January 26, 2012. Accessed September 23, 2012. <>.
[12] Sharp, Deborah. “George P. Bush at Center of Campaign Buzz.” Last modified June 18, 2000. Accessed September 23, 2012. <>.
[13] Associated Press. “Bush Defends ‘Little Brown Ones’ Term for Grandchildren, Tells ’Pride and Love’” Los Angeles Times. Last modified August 17, 1988. Accessed September 23, 2012. <>.