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 their "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 once again didn't quite live up to the hype. Indeed, Hillary responded to her post-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 (while 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. It's a murky phenomenon, poorly understood by the white-dominated press. …
Americans just don't pay much attention to Latinos, period. 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 lady golfer ever among advertisers.
Although the media constantly try to drum up interest in Hispanics by extolling them as "swing voters" living in "vibrant neighborhoods" and so forth and so on, the tedious reality is that the single 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.
March 1, 2008
Here's an excerpt from my new article in The American Conservative on relations between blacks and Hispanics: