Beyond Black and Brown

Don't fall for more race-baiting in California.

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A lot has been written in the run-up to the Super Tuesday primary in California about how presumed friction between African Americans and Latinos will influence the race. Focus on the black-brown conflict has been building since Sergio Bendixen, a Latino pollster and coordinator for Sen. Clinton, told a reporter for the New Yorker following the senator's win in New Hampshire, that the Latino voter, "has not shown a lot of willingness or affinity to support black candidates."

Hillary Clinton tried to deflect the ensuing controversy by saying Bendixen's comment was a "historical statement."  However, history does not support Clinton and Bendixen's view.

Latinos have, on many occasions, voted for black candidates, former Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley being the best known example. And African Americans regularly vote for Latino candidates. In the last Los Angeles mayoral election, Mayor Antonio Villagairosa was supported by a majority of African American voters after having soundly lost the black vote to his opponent in his previous failed attempt. In the recall vote that elected Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Latino Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante won a higher percentage of black votes than Latino votes.

Attempts to reduce the preferences of browns and blacks to race, is at the very least, an oversimplification.

So how do we understand the primary race in California? Sen. Clinton's appeal among Latino voters has much to do with name recognition. As with African Americans, the Clinton name carries credibility and has very real positive associations in the Latino community. The backing of Latino leaders like Villagairosa -- who signed on to the Clinton campaign early, believing that Obama would not represent a serious challenge -- also carries weight.

But her appeal is hardly consistent. While name recognition may help a great deal with older Latino voters, Sen. Barack Obama will probably do well among younger Latinos. Influential Latino organizations are also split. Immigrant-focused groups like the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles have been pro-Obama while more traditional groups like the United Farm Workers (UFW) have been pro-Clinton. As with some African Americans, there are prominent differences within families. Congresswomen and sisters Linda and Loretta Sanchez are supporting Obama and Clinton respectively.

There is no evidence in surveys of Latinos in Southern California that anti-black racism or stereotypes drive Latino feelings about Obama or voting behavior more broadly. There is also no evidence that support for Clinton means Latinos have negative feelings toward Obama.  Certainly, there are problematic expressions of anti-black racism among Latinos that need to be addressed, along with xenophobia and scapegoating of Latinos among African Americans. But neither serve as the primary drivers behind voting choices or policy preferences for Latinos or African Americans.

Much in the way that race was injected into the South Carolina primary, the Clinton campaign appears to have tried –at least early on -- in California, to make race a central topic in California, as well. The "race" talk suggests to Latinos that it might not be in their interest to elect an African American and reminds white voters that Obama is black by using Latinos as the surrogate racists.

The media has largely fallen for it. Simplistic explanations about voting behavior based upon race or gender are easier to write than trying to explain more complex political dynamics. Sen. Clinton may well win the Latino vote in California, but suggestions that such a win resulted from anti-black racism could have long-term negative repercussions.

There is also evidence that Clinton may not perform as well among Latinos as the media and recent polls have suggested. Recent endorsements by Sen. Ted  Kennedy, labor leader Maria Elena Durazo, and California state Sen. Gil Cedillo (the champion of driver's licenses for the undocumented in California), suggest Sen. Obama's popularity may be expanding.