LIANE HANSEN, host:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.
In Atlanta, the two candidates left vying for mayor are reportedly in a statistical dead heat heading into a December runoff election. The city, which has long been a nucleus of black political power, could elect a white mayor for the first time in 30 years.
Our series on race, Beyond Black and White, continues this week with a focus on race in the realm of politics and public policy. For that, we're joined by NPR contributor Ruben Navarrette. He's a nationally syndicated columnist who has written extensively on the issue, and he joins us from member station KPBS in San Diego, California. Thanks for being with us. Welcome to the program, Ruben.
RUBEN NAVARRETTE: Thanks, Liane. Great to be here.
HANSEN: When we look at successful modern-day political campaigns, and chief among them is Barack Obama's presidential campaign, do you think that we're experiencing a generational shift toward political colorblindness?
NAVARRETTE: I do. I think there's a lot to that. And I think you hit it exactly right. The generational angle is important, both with the Barack Obama campaign and what's happening in Atlanta, as you mentioned. There's a lot of folks who are just over it. They're just over the idea of racial differences and the notion of the significance of having an African-American political stronghold like Atlanta. I think that's a really refreshing trend, but it does seem to show up a lot more with younger people, now that you mention it.
HANSEN: But they're not obsolete. These racial identity politics are appealing to voters solely on the basis of race and self-interest.
NAVARRETTE: Absolutely not. It shouldn't be, because it's ingrained in the American way of doing things. This is just another version of a very old story in the United States where other groups come along and they sometimes vote their interests or they think it's important to have an average American mayor of a city like Boston. It's pretty much in our fabric. It's as American as apple pie.
HANSEN: In the 2000 census, people were allowed to choose more than one box for race, but many civil rights leaders and groups like the Congressional Black Caucus opposed that effort. Could you tell us what the argument was?
NAVARRETTE: Yeah, you know, there's a concern, Liane, that there's a diluting of our old paradigm. Our old paradigm in this country - won't surprise anyone to know - is black and white. We've become increasingly a multicolor, Technicolor society where people don't fit into either category. But I think if you belong to either one of those camps, you have in your best interest, if someone like a 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, I think, but not exclusively so that we're moving away from a black and white paradigm. And as we do, the power of the black community will in turn be diminished.
HANSEN: Explain how your mother's birth certificate is a metaphor for how the country's attitude about race has evolved.
NAVARRETTE: Yeah. Like a lot of Hispanics born in the - Mexican-Americans, in the case of my mother, who was born in 1942 - people from that era were allowed, really, two choices on your birth certificate - you were either black or white. So, if you look at my mother's birth certificate, born in Edinburg, Texas in 1942, it says white. And I've asked her about that before. It was just the way it was at the time.
And I have interviewed other people. They've had experiences where they've asked their mothers and fathers. And when they ask, say, their mother, why does your birth certificate say you're white? The answer comes back, well, obviously because I'm not black. And so, it's kind of hard to argue with that.
Back in the day, that's how we divided up the camps, really, into one of these two boxes. 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.
HANSEN: The traditional civil rights paradigm in this country is still largely black and white, but the country's Hispanic population now outnumbers that of African-Americans. So, where do Latinos fit in?
NAVARRETTE: Yeah, it's a very good question. I'll tell you what, this was supposed to happen in 2010 that Latinos would outnumber African-Americans and become the number one minority in the country. It happened seven years ahead of schedule - it happened way back in 2003. And since that time, in the last six or seven years or so, we've had a difficult time answering the very question you put to me: Where do Latinos fit in this black/white paradigm?
And particularly when you're talking about civil rights legislation, the history of civil rights, Latinos, I think, fit into this very precariously because they seem themselves, in many cases, they draw parallels between the immigration rights movement of today and the Civil Rights Movement of yesteryear.
I think they fit into it, as I said, very carefully. I think that most Latinos understand and they defer to the idea that African-Americans have a very special place in American society, and this is not an attempt to supersede that, to erase that at all. 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 when we've long since moved beyond that realm.
HANSEN: Let's narrow it down a little to cities. I mean, Los Angeles, Miami and New York - some are seeing power struggles between blacks and Latinos in those cities. Do you characterize what's going on as a power struggle?
NAVARRETTE: It is a power struggle. It's also a struggle for respect for relevance. African-Americans are speaking very clearly, saying, listen, 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 won from government and the progress that we've made here over voting rights and the like. And they see Latinos as interlopers, people who have just come along late to the game and ridden the coattails of African-Americans.
Conversely, Latinos say, hey, wait a minute, in places like New Mexico and Arizona we've actually been here for 300 or 400 years. And we've been here quite a long time as it is. And just because the East Coast power structure hasn't taken note of that doesn't mean we also have not contributed over time, including sending off a lot of our young men and women off to war, not of all whom come back home safe and sound.
So, there's a lot to be said for both sides of it. What's interesting is if you live in Washington or a city like Atlanta, for instance, the paradigm is such that it's overwhelmingly African-American and you really don't get a sense of the black/brown thing. If you go to Phoenix, Arizona you see the opposite, or San Antonio, Texas, you see the opposite. There you have a majority of Latinos and very few African-Americans.
But you mentioned a handful of cities. There's about six or seven cities in America, large cities, where you have this tension at work - this black/brown tension - Chicago, L.A., Miami. 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.
HANSEN: Ruben Navarrette is a nationally syndicated columnist and editorial board member of the San Diego Union Tribune. He joined us from member station KPBS in San Diego, California. Ruben, thanks a lot for being on the show.
NAVARRETTE: My pleasure, Liane.