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Beyond Black and White

We’re barely past the hundred days mark, but we might as well accept the cold, hard facts: It’s Barack Obama’s world. Latinos just live in it.

It doesn’t follow that electing an African-American president would automatically improve the lives of Latinos in the United States. It never did. But it’s fair to say that that some of the nearly 7 million Latinos who voted for Obama assumed it would work out that way.

After the election of the 44th president of the United States, I received more than a dozen emails from Latino readers who were ecstatic because, they reasoned, his victory meant that Latinos would also move ahead. They assumed that, with the election of the country’s first African-American president, other barriers would fall and America’s largest minority would benefit. Could the first Latino Secretary of State, Supreme Court Justice, or even President, be far behind?

I heard the same thing from other Latinos in radio and television interviews. Many of them told reporters that they took special pride in Obama’s historic victory because they thought it held the promise that America would make a place for them, too. The inference seemed to be that, with white America becoming comfortable with the idea of an African-American president, it would logically follow that having Latinos in top posts would also become more acceptable to the mainstream.

In fact, I heard it from my own parents. As Mexican-Americans who were raised in South Texas and Central California in the 1940s and ‘50s on a diet of overt discrimination and limited opportunity, my parents---and others of their generation---managed to love a country that didn’t always love them back. They’ve always understood the difference between America’s promise and America’s practice. The day after the election, they could hardly contain their excitement as they explained to my 4-year-old daughter that Obama’s victory meant that she could one day grow up to be president. It was the same sort of anything-is-possible message my parents had instilled in my brother, sister and me. But this was different. This time, it seemed, they really believed it.

Call it opportunity by osmosis. Granted, this sort of thinking fits the pattern of how racial progress has often occurred in this country as well as how civil rights law has evolved. First, African-Americans break down the door. Then other racial and ethnic minorities walk through it.

Whether Latinos, Asian Americans, Muslim-Americans and other groups like it or not, the black-white narrative is the nation’s dominant racial storyline---even if there are now more Latinos than African-Americans in the United States.

Where do Latinos fit in this black-white paradigm that has always existed and that, for all the talk about multiculturalism, has only intensified since Obama’s election? It depends on whom you ask. Many blacks see Latinos as closer to whites, while many whites see Latinos as co-conspirators with blacks. Neither is completely true.

One person who thinks the heat should be turned up is Laura Gomez, professor of law and American studies at the University of New Mexico and author of Manifest Destinies: The Making of the Mexican American Race. With a PhD in Sociology from Stanford in addition to her JD from Stanford Law School, Gomez has done a lot of research into where Latinos fit on the racial paradigm dominated by blacks and whites. She even has a term for it, insisting that since Latinos are neither black nor white, they are more aptly described as “off-white.” To hear Gomez tell it, this is sort of a racial way station. And other groups have been where Latinos are now.

“Jews, Italians, Irish,” she told me. “They weren’t considered white at particular times in our history. They came to be considered white.”

For now, Latinos remain on the sidelines of America’s racial dialogue. Many were incensed when Attorney General Eric Holder – in his clumsy “nation of cowards” remarks during Black History Month – left out any mention of Latinos. Nor did Holder mention Asian Americans, a group which represents one of the fast-growing minorities in the United States. There are more Asians in the Obama Cabinet than there are Latinos.

“Holder’s speech is very much in black-and-white terms,” Gomez said. “Almost everywhere he mentions specifics, he’s talking about blacks and whites…So I think it raises a question – where are Latinos in this?”

Where indeed? Holder said: “The study of black history is important to everyone -- black or white.” At another point, Holder rattled off a list of civil rights figures -- “people to whom all of us, black and white, owe such a debt of gratitude.”

The fact that Latinos were omitted from Holder’s speech wasn’t a total shock. After all, it’s an old story. Some would say that Latinos have never fit neatly into America’s racial paradigm. It’s true now, but it’s been true since Latinos first arrived in this country – or in the case of Mexican-Americans in the Southwest, when everyone else arrived. Civil rights law, public policy, and various urban initiatives over the years have usually been cast in black-and-white terms.

“We’re presumed invisible from the racial past of the United States,” Gomez said.

Even today, when colleges or corporations or non-profit foundations undertake diversity initiatives, these efforts often concentrate on African-Americans. Latinos are an afterthought, at best. Yet, at the same time, Latinos almost seem omnipresent. Is that good or bad? Gomez seems to be leaning toward the latter.

“There’s this almost hyper-visibility of Latinos,” she said. “But it’s a narrow and often wrong kind of hyper-visibility because it is the ‘illegal alien.’ Every Latino is presumed to be an immigrant and secondly to be an undocumented Mexican.”

That’s poetic. There is nothing like people whose ancestors have been in the United States for five or six generations being told to “go back to Mexico” by those who are relative newcomers. If you’re keeping score at home, you’d have to register Holder’s race speech as an error – at least as far as Latinos are concerned. And when you also input Obama’s cabinet nominations and other high-level appointments, and his treatment of the immigration issue, it’s easy to see why many Latinos might think they haven’t gotten what they expected.

So how have Latinos fared since the curtain opened on the Obama presidency? Let’s start with the Cabinet nominations. Obama got off to an uninspiring start by failing to appoint a Latino to one of the top four Cabinet positions: Secretary of State, Treasury Secretary, Attorney General, or Defense Secretary. The slight meant that, at least in this one respect, Obama didn’t measure up to George W. Bush who---though liberals hate to admit it ---breached the inner sanctum by appointing Alberto Gonzales as Attorney General.

Making matters worse, Obama passed over New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, perhaps the nation’s most prominent Latino elected official. It was Richardson whom many observers expected would be a natural fit for Secretary of State. Obama offered the New Mexico governor the post of Commerce Secretary---a consolation prize, at best---only to have Richardson withdraw his name when it was learned that he was one of the subjects of an FBI investigation into New Mexico’s “pay to play” system for awarding state contracts.

Obama wound up with two Latinos in the Cabinet: Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Labor Secretary Hilda Solis. That isn’t bad, but it’s not spectacular either. In fact, it’s the same percentage that President Clinton produced 16 years ago, despite the fact that---in that period of time---Latinos have soared to nearly 15 percent of the U.S. population. Besides, this is no way for Obama to treat an ethnic group who, despite a thin record of service by the Illinois senator toward Latinos, helped the Democrat win four battleground states and supported him by a 2-to-1 margin over John McCain.

Obama didn’t do much better in filling the second-tier positions in his administration. There was, for instance, quite a dustup over the position of Assistant Attorney General for civil rights, which is traditionally a coveted position. The job was reportedly offered to Thomas Saenz, a former law professor and attorney with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund. A summa cum laude graduate of Yale University and graduate of Yale Law School, Saenz supposedly accepted the position. Then, the offer was quietly withdrawn and the position was instead given to another Latino lawyer,Thomas Perez, who was then Maryland’s Labor Secretary.

There might have been no controversy---after all, the position still went to a Latino---had it not been for one thing. While working for MALDEF, Saenz helped lead the legal fight against Proposition 187, the infamous California ballot initiative that tried to deny illegal immigrants and their children access to education, welfare and health services. Saenz also went to bat for illegal immigrant day laborers harassed by local ordinances. Before long, many of the Latino organizations that had supported Obama were registering their concern that the White House had caved into pressure from the right.

Aside from Cabinet nominations and other personnel matters, there is Obama’s treatment of the immigration issue itself. Certainly, Latinos care about a variety of issues beyond immigration. In fact, recent polls show immigration to be outside the top five issues of concern to most Latinos: education, jobs, the economy, health care, and taxes. But the reason that immigration is so important goes back to what the administration’s critics said during l’affair Saenz. Because the opposition to comprehensive immigration reform is so active and so vocal, there is this fear in some quarters that Obama might (as the New York Times put it) “wilt under pressure and heat.” And if the administration will bend on that issue, it’ll bend on any issue that matters to Latinos.

On the immigration issue, Obama has sent mixed signals. It seems he wants to fix the immigration system. But no one can tell how much he wants it. At times, Obama has restated his pledge to deliver comprehensive immigration reform. That’s reportedly what he did in a private meeting with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, in interviews on Spanish-language radio, and before a town hall meeting in Costa Mesa, CA.

At other times, it seems that Obama plans put off the immigration issue until later in his term. It’s easy to find Obama supporters who will argue for this course of action, insisting that the economy is the number one issue and that it demands the president’s full attention. Besides, they ask: Why would Americans want to legalize and throw into the work force millions of people to do jobs that should go to U.S. workers?

And of course, actions speak louder than words. Just a few weeks after Obama took the oath of office, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) carried out the new administration’s first major worksite raid. ICE agents swarmed Yamato Engine Specialists, a plant in Bellingham, WA, and arrested 28 illegal immigrants. A pro-immigrant organization, America’s Voice, condemned the raid and said it was “in stark contrast to the president’s vision for common-sense immigration policies.”

It was also in stark contrast to what Obama himself said about raids while running for president. Speaking at the National council of La Raza (NCLR) annual conference last year, Obama lamented a situation where “communities are terrorized by ICE immigration raids---when nursing mothers are torn from their babies, when children come home from school to find their parents missing.”

Now, is it his administration that’s doing the terrorizing? No wonder immigration activists are planning a new round of marches this spring, intended to condemn workplace raids and put pressure on Obama to make his actions match his rhetoric. If it happens, imagine the spectacle of having some of the same immigration activists who supported Obama during the election now dialing up the heat on the administration they put in power.

It’s not that Latinos are running away from Obama, much less the Democratic Party. Most of them remain loyally on the Left. In fact, the president’s approval rating among Latinos remains high. The long-term problem for the administration is that, if Latinos become more disenchanted with the idea of Barack Obama and come to see him as just another politician who promises one thing and does another, it may be difficult to maintain the level of support that the Obama-Biden ticket enjoyed from Latino voters. That could mean that, in 2012, Republicans---with the right candidate---could pick off a greater share of Latino support than John McCain was able to muster.

Of course, this bet might yet pay off. It’s still early in the Obama presidency. And, if the chief executive is inclined to make strides with his Latino constituents, he will have plenty of chances to do so before the end of his term. Besides crafting a plan on immigration reform, the Obama team could strengthen accountability in our public schools to close the learning gap, make health care more affordable, extend the life of Social Security, create more jobs, and lower taxes on small business. All of that would go a long way toward restoring the confidence of Latinos in the president they helped elect.

But, if this love affair ends, the blame won’t lie entirely with Obama. Latinos will have their share. After all, they were the ones who built up in their minds what an Obama presidency would mean for them, their children, and their grandchildren. They were the ones who helped put Obama in the Oval Office. And they were the ones who went along with what he proposed and, for the most part, didn’t raise their voices in protest.

For one thing, who told Latinos that helping to elect the nation’s first African-American president would automatically improve their lives? That was their assumption. Would electing a Latino president naturally improve the lives of African-Americans or Asian Americans? African-Americans have their agenda, and Latinos have theirs. In truth, besides the shared characteristic of being non-white, there is very little the two groups have in common. That’s a lesson worth remembering.

Besides, in the end, it really isn’t the role of a president---whatever the color of his or her skin---to improve the lives of average Americans. That’s the job of the individual. We all need to work hard, sacrifice, persevere, make the right choices, invest in our education and training, and take risks. And then we need to raise good kids by instilling the same values in them. Add then, for good measure, it doesn’t hurt to add a dash of the optimism that our parents and grandparents brought with them from Mexico, Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic or whatever part of Latin America they came from.

In fact, one of the biggest challenges facing the Latino community is that---the further it gets from its own immigrant roots, and the more acculturated it becomes with the American way of life---the greater the sense of entitlement. Too many of our children and grandchildren think the world owes them a living. They know all about their rights, but never give a thought to their responsibilities. Of course, they’re not the only ones.

In politics, too many Americans vote for a president based on what they think the candidate will do for them, their family, or people like them rather than for the good of the country. One result of this phenomenon is that candidates have learned to tailor their message to the audience, even if it means making promises that conflict with one another. They have one speech on NAFTA for crowds in Michigan or Wisconsin, and another for audiences in Texas or Arizona. And if elected, they’ll spend a lot of time trying to reconcile those conflicting messages.

Maybe Latinos fell into that trap in the last election and helped elect Barack Obama because they assumed they’d benefit from having him in the White House. And now that he is there, they’re not sure they will. They can only wait and see and hope for the best. Maybe the wait will do them good, and give them a chance to contemplate what a president can do for them compared to what they must do for themselves.

So, will the Obama years be kind to Latinos? It depends. Not on what Obama does in the next four years. But on what millions of Latinos decide to do with the next four years.

Ruben Navarrette Jr. is an editorial board member of the San Diego Union-Tribune, a nationally syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group, a weekly commentator at, and the author of A Darker Shade of Crimson: Odyssey of a Harvard Chicano (Bantam). Contact him at: