Racial rifts: Obama's candidacy a Rorschach test for nation's minorities
After Hillary Rodham Clinton bowed out, Barack Obama could finally say he was capturing the all-important Latino vote. In the first post-Hillary...
Newhouse News Service
WASHINGTON — After Hillary Rodham Clinton bowed out, Barack Obama could finally say he was capturing the all-important Latino vote. In the first post-Hillary poll matching Obama against John McCain, 62 percent of NBC/Wall Street Journal's relatively small sampling of Hispanic voters threw their support behind Obama.
Anecdotal evidence suggests Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are following suit, as ethnic newspapers run headlines noting Obama's childhood in Hawaii and his ties to Indonesia. But an uncomfortable thing happened on the way to the nomination.
We hyphenated Americans in Second Generation Nation don't know how quite to talk about it in polite company (read: when white people are listening). It's the ugly family secret we'd rather not acknowledge.
While pundits in situation rooms pontificated about Asian Americans' loyalty to the Clintons and Latinos' familiarity with Hillary, we were having a different conversation in our living rooms.
"My older brother said he wouldn't vote for Obama because he's black," my friend Tam Ly tells a group in varying shades of tan to brown (or insert favorite coffee-drinks-resembling-ethnic-skin-tones here, a la "cafe con leche to mocha") gathered at his Washington, D.C., home for a dinner party.
We're discussing the election in Spanish and English tinged with a range of Asian accents and Caribbean patois. We're the grown children of Ellis and Angel islands, the college-educated yuppies who emerged from the hopes and dreams of the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free.
"He says things like, 'I prefer McCain because white people have more power and are less prone to corruption,' but we both know what he's really saying," Ly, a 37-year-old engineer, says to knowing nods around the room. His brother has remained isolated in the Southeast Asian enclave in Florida where Ly grew up.
"It's like a code that you don't really talk about — but you know it exists in your community, your family."
Some call it the black-brown divide, and Time magazine even asked earlier this year, "Does Obama have an Asian Problem?"
Anyone who has watched "Crash," or recalls the post-Rodney King images of Korean store owners taking up arms against African-American rioters, or reads the news about black-Latino gang wars, knows that America's race problem is not just black and white.
Mistrust among groups
A 2007 multilingual poll of African Americans, Asians and Hispanics conducted by New America Media, "Deep Divisions, Shared Destinies," revealed mistrust among those groups. When asked with whom outside of their own racial group they felt most comfortable doing business, the vast majority of Latinos chose whites over Asian Americans and blacks (61 percent, 4 percent and 3 percent, respectively), and Asians chose whites over Latinos and blacks (53 percent, 7 percent and 3 percent, respectively).
In the same survey, 44 percent of Latinos and 47 percent of Asians agreed with the statement, "I am generally afraid of African Americans because they are responsible for most of the crime."
But Ruben G. Rumbaut, a professor of sociology at the University of California at Irvine who specializes in immigration issues, warns against simple conclusions about such biases.
"They ask, 'Why did all these Latinos go for Hillary?' " Rumbaut says. "And they assume the answer is, 'Because she's not black.' So therefore they must hate blacks. It doesn't work that way."
The first mistake, he says, is to assume that Asian, Latino and black are homogeneous subgroups. Rumbaut likes to say that race is a "pigment of our imagination."
"Hispanic" or "Latino" as a single category makes about as much sense as telling a Cuban immigrant leery of Obama's willingness to talk to Raul Castro that she is part of the same voting bloc as a Puerto Rican in New York or a Mexican-American in Los Angeles.
Beyond that, the complex attitudes that are reduced to poll numbers — and to what Ly refers to as the unspoken "code" — have their roots in historic, economic and political realities rarely brought into the discussion, Rumbaut says.
Competition in labor and business markets has stoked resentments, for example, between low-wage black workers and Latino immigrants, between "middleman" Asian business owners and predominantly black communities they serve.
Irma Valdez, a real-estate broker who grew up in Chicago's Mexican immigrant enclaves, says people like her father, "who worked in kitchens and picked strawberries — they're suspicious of Barack Obama because of his history in Chicago."
There, she says, Mexican Americans seized upon comments Obama made long before he became the presumptive nominee.
"He said he needed evidence that undocumented immigrants are doing the work that other Americans won't," Valdez says, noting that to her father, this was a clear attempt to appease local African Americans — unhappy about the impact that illegal immigration has had on low-wage jobs — at the expense of Latinos.
And you can bet, she says, that Mexican Americans in Chicago told their family and friends around the country, and word spread faster than Jeremiah Wright's speeches on YouTube. Valdez notes, however, that there is a generation and education gap between immigrants like her father, and second-generation, multiple-degree-holding Latinos like herself, who are more likely to relate to all people of color and support Obama.
Still, the old divide-and-conquer persists: A power structure that puts whites on top and minorities below has created a scramble for the scraps of influence and resources.
"With this election, people feel like, 'Am I no longer going to be the minority of choice?' " she says. "Are Latinos and Asians going to have to fight to be the second- and third-tier minorities?"
Who's more deserving?
Michael J. Smith, an assistant professor of graduate education at Portland State University in Oregon, says that having lived in Los Angeles, he has grown to accept racial tensions among minorities as an unfortunate part of politics and life.
"After Reaganomics, there was a sense that there was not enough around for all people of color anymore," says Smith, 47. "Each group is always trying to prove that they're more deserving than the other, because they've been here longer, they've struggled through slavery and fought for civil rights, or because they work harder."
People of all races and cultures react to Obama like a Rorschach test, UC Irvine's Rumbaut says. Because Obama himself is racially ambiguous — raised by a white mother, fathered by a Kenyan immigrant, grew up in Hawaii, lived in Indonesia, married to an African American from Chicago — people project onto him their own hopes, fears and beliefs about race.
That can mean mistrust or competitive tension but can also contain optimism and a sense of larger people-of-color solidarity that infuses second-, third- and later-generation immigrants.
If New America Media's 2007 survey is any indication, about 90 percent of the same African Americans, Asian Americans and Latinos who expressed discomfort with each other said their groups should put aside differences and work together.
More than 60 percent of each group said they believed tensions between them would ease in the next 10 years.
And this was before Obama even seemed to have a chance at the nomination.
For Ly, who has still not been able to persuade his older brother to reconsider his views on Obama, it's about the next generation.
When he talks to his brother, this is what he says: "I want to be able to say in our generation that we did this. Martin Luther King did something phenomenal for all minorities, for the human race. Obama could be the next step, not just for blacks, but also for Latinos, for Asians, for everyone. It's about looking at your kids and saying, 'You could be president.' "Angie Chuang, an assistant professor of journalism in the School of Communication at American University in Washington, wrote this article for The Oregonian of Portland. She can be contacted at email@example.com
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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