Barack Obama's presidential campaign was one of several successful, modern-day political campaigns to break through racial barriers. Is this an indication that America is experiencing a shift toward political colorblindness?
In Atlanta, long a nucleus of black political power, a December runoff election could result in the election of a white mayor for the first time in 30 years. Are the tenets of racial identity politics, or appealing to voters solely on the basis of race and self-interest, obsolete?
Columnist Ruben Navarrette, who writes extensively on race politics, tells host Liane Hansen, "There's a lot of folks that are just over it — they're just over the idea of racial differences."
The idea of having a black stronghold like Atlanta is becoming less significant, Navarrette says. "That's a really refreshing trend, but it does seem to show up a lot more with younger people."
New Voters, New Paradigm
Yet the idea of racial identity politics is ingrained in our nation, Navarrette says. "This is just another version of a very old story in the United States, where other groups come along and sometimes they vote their interests, or they think it's important to have an Irish-American mayor of a city like Boston. It's pretty much in our fabric — it's as American as apple pie."
In defense of those interests, efforts to allow people to choose more than one box for race on U.S. census surveys was opposed by many civil rights leaders and groups like the Congressional Black Caucus. Navarrette says there's a concern about diluting the old paradigm of black and white.
"We've become an increasingly multicolor, Technicolor society, where people don't fit into either category," he says. If you belong to either one of those camps and someone like Barack Obama comes along, "rather than have him check a box that says multiracial or multicultural, you want him to be in the African-American box if you happen to be African-American.
"This is very much about a concern, particularly in the African-American community, [that] we're moving away from a black and white paradigm," Navarrette says. "And as we do, the power of the black community will be diminished."
Navarrette's mother has a birth certificate that serves as metaphor for how the country's attitude about race has evolved. His mother is Mexican, born in Texas in 1942. People from that era only had two choices on their birth certificate, Navarrette says — you were either black or white.
"Back in the day, that's how we divided up the camps — into one of these two boxes," he says. "Now we've developed more boxes, but I don't know if we're simplifying things. Our racial picture in America only seems to be getting more complicated."
Power Struggle Between Latinos And Blacks
The country's Hispanic population now outnumbers that of African-Americans, yet Navarrette says it's still hard to figure out where Latinos fit in the paradigm. "I think that most Latinos understand, and they defer to the idea that African-Americans have a very special place in American society." They don't mean to supersede that position, he says. "But then again, you can't ignore the numbers. It just doesn't make any sense to continue to think of America in black and white."
Several large American cities are in the midst of that conflict. In Los Angeles, Miami, Chicago and New York, some see a political power struggle between blacks and Latinos. Navarrette says it's also a struggle for respect and relevance.
"African-Americans are speaking very clearly, saying, 'You know, we have been here an awful long time. We have bled and died, in many cases, for these kinds of concessions that we've won from government.' " They see Latinos as a group who are riding their coattails, Navarrette says.
Conversely, Latinos point out that they've been in places like New Mexico and Arizona for hundreds of years, Navarrette says. The East Coast may not reflect the same mix of color, but go West, and you'll find places where the Latino population outnumbers African-Americans.
"You have this tension at work — this black-brown tension," Navarrette says. "And those are very interesting places. But if nothing else, they're sort of a microcosm, sort of a laboratory for how we're going to work through this really incredibly important dimension between African-Americans and Latinos."