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Race-Related Politics in America More Visible Than Ever

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In the Era of Obama, experts examine how much minority voting has become a sleeping giant

By Corey Arvin
Contributing Writer

Injecting the conversation of race and diversity into any election has been long regarded as a political minefield which liberal and conservative candidates alike should sidestep as it could diminish their chances of victory.

Fast forward to November 6, 2012, staggering minority voter turnout of African-American, Latino, Asian and LGBT voters -- thanks in part to allegations of voter suppression in Southern states -- eased Barack Obama into a second term as President of the United States. It turned out to be a historic election that sent shock waves that are still reverberating through conservative ranks.

Suddenly, minorities are the focal point of an election.

Today, with America's political landscape reshaped, fear is brewing among conservatives and some democrats that the growing minority electorate may shun white candidates or give preference in favor of minority candidates.

With African-Americans boosting voter turnout to a record high of 13 percent last year and the Latino voting population swelling to 10 percent of the U.S. electorate, concerns are surfacing that November 2012 could become a trend that impacts local and national elections.

Some point to the public outcry in the City of Palmdale that has drawn national attention as a possible example of new expectations among minority citizens. Palmdale, a desert community about 60 miles Northeast of Los Angeles, has some citizens dismayed over 50-plus years of white candidates elected to the City Council in a city with about two-thirds African-Americans and Latinos. Since the city's incorporation in 1962, only one Latino has served on the City Council and no African Americans. The contention has raised questions about whether Palmdale is a microcosm of a larger frustration among minority voters eager for representation from officials who share similar backgrounds.

New Age of Entitlement?
According to Loren Collingwood, an Assistant Professor of Political Science at University of California, Riverside (UCR), rumblings among conservatives that a new future on the horizon that neglects and disenfranchises white voters is far from reality -- right now. While the matter has triggered anxiety among some white voters, the notion that changing demographics will be difficult for white candidates to overcome are "ridiculous" assumptions that may never manifest.

Collingwood, who has worked for political polling firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner in Washington D.C., received his Ph.d. in Political Science from the University of Washington. He frequently analyzes campaigns and elections and the intersection with race and ethnicity. Collingwood is authoring a book which examines the relationship between white candidates and black and Latino voters over the past 50 years. He acknowledges that race is becoming an increasingly apparent topic and difficult to ignore during election cycles.

"The reality is that race is becoming more front and center in recent years, primarily because of Obama. But party I.D. is still the overwhelming factor driving voter behavior. ... Party I.D. is a salient factor. Voting on race is much more impactful on the local level, in a big city. There is where you can see the real racial cleavages," said Collingwood.

Overwhelmingly, voters will point to a candidate's policies and ideas as the the driving force behind their support, but in truth, race can play an evident role in a minority's candidate choice, according to Collingwood.

"Most people who study race and elections argue that race is at the center of elections, especially when a candidate is minority. The most polarized groups in American politics split largely along racial lines; Evangelical whites almost uniformly vote for Republican candidates, whereas African-American voters usually support democrats 90 percent or higher. Latinos, too, support democrats now around 70% of the time. The electorate as a whole is growing more racially diverse, so these types of cleavages will become even more key.

Twenty years ago, race was arguably less important simply because there were more white voters."

Growing Political Force
Despite its 16.7 percent composition of the U.S. population -- edging over African-Americans' 13.1 percent -- and 11 million undocumented immigrants uncertain of their future, few would argue that any other demographic group has captured the attention of political organizations such as the Latino population. With hot-button issues like proposed immigration reform in limbo and debates over which Latino officials on either sides of the aisle should take greater leadership for the Latinos, the focus on their growing voting bloc could remain into the 2014 and 2016 congressional, state and national elections.

However, Latinos are currently submerged in a battle for comprehensive immigration reform and to eradicate "anti-Latino" policies that hurt Latinos, according to State Sen. Ricardo Lara (D-Long Beach).

Lara is Chairman of the California Latino Legislative Caucus (CLLC) which includes 23 state senators and assemblymembers. The Latino Caucus serves as a forum for members from the State Senate and Assembly to identify key issues affecting Latinos and develop avenues to empower the Latino community throughout California.

Following in the footsteps of generations of pioneering Latinos who settled and helped build California, Latino legislators united in 1973 to maximize their power notwithstanding their limited numbers. Since its creation 40 years ago the Caucus has grown in both numbers and stature.

"Over the last twenty years, the Latino community has felt the effect of anti-Latino policies that have unfairly targeted it, but have also served to mobilize the community. One clear example is the passage of Proposition 187 in 1994 under Republican Governor Pete Wilson’s leadership. This anti-immigrant proposal established a state-run citizenship screening system and prohibited undocumented immigrants from using health care, public education, and other social services in California," said Lara.

Lara also cites Proposition 209, which was passed in 1996, and the Welfare Reform Act of 1996 as two additional policies that were a detriment to Latinos in the areas of employment, education and human services.

"As the Latino population continues to grow and becomes an increasingly integral part of our state and our nation, our leadership, priorities and focus must reflect the changing and diverse face of our state and country," said Lara.

As Latino leaders continue to push for change through dialogue and mobilize Latino communities, they are looking at lessons learned from the African-American community. Lara hopes to build new bridges with the African-American community as the CLLC moves forward.

"As communities, we have had the opportunity to benefit from the sacrifices and work of leaders like Cesar Chavez and Martin Luther King and now it is our turn to continue to build upon this foundation by working together or building partnerships between our caucuses to address legislative and budget priorities," he said.

"We must not forget that each one of our rights comes with the responsibility to advocate for the advancement of future generations. We must continue to fight for living wages and healthy working environments for all Californians."

Republicans Taking Notice
While some may view the rising minority vote as a challenge to Republican leaders and conservative voters, with proactive engagement, the growing minority electorate may not evolve into a divisive partisan issue that pits minorities against Republicans. Some Republicans are taking notice and pushing for change within the party to ensure its survival.

Former State Sen. Jim Brulte, who is now Chairman of the California Republican Party (CRP), believes Republicans should place more emphasis on reaching out to all minority voters.

"I think most Republicans and Republican organizations understand that if we are to be a viable second party in California we need to go into traditional non-republican communities and not only discuss our message and principles, but listen to the voices in those communities. We also need to elevate from within those communities messengers who share our vision and principles," said Brulte.

"Republicans need to recognize that more often than not, the messenger is as important as the message."

During the 20th Century, African-Americans found some common ground with conservatives on social issues and traditional values, but since the turn of the century and the election of President Obama, African-Americans have made a mass exodus from the Republican Party.

According to Brulte, there is still room to appeal to African-Americans and other minorities. Brulte believes no community's vote is indefinitely lost by a political party. Furthermore, as Republicans improve upon communicating with all communities, "the old assumptions" will fade away.

"Republicans currently represent about 29 percent of the electorate in California. 100 percent of 29 does not get us to 51 percent. If the Growth and Opportunity Party is ever going to make a comeback in this state, GOP elected officials and leaders need to get out of their comfort zones and campaign in every community of the state. Too many GOP leaders and elected officials spend their time 'preaching to the Choir', but the choir is already converted. True leaders spend time in communities that have yet to be converted," he added.

More Work Lies Ahead
The Democratic Party has gained a clear advantage with minority voters by pushing legislation and advocating issues that resonate with minority communities, said John P. Shoals, former President of the League of California Cities African-American Caucus and former Mayor of Grover Beach. Shoals was the first African-American mayor elected to Grover Beach, which has an African-American population of only 1 percent.

Democrats' success with minorities is not all credited to governing directly for minorities. Some policies were probably introduced that may appear to target minorities, but were originally intended to reach a broader spectrum of constituents, he said.

According to Shoals, in today's climate, there may be more of an expectation from minorities to see leadership from other minorities. But African-American voters are an example of a group that can distinguish when a candidates values should transcend racial identification. However if some cannot, then some African-Americans should be more educated on what makes policy leaders effective, he said.

While race is more of an obvious issue on the national political stage, there are voters and candidates who can see past it, said Shoals.

"It could have affected me if I fed into the preconceived notion that no one white will vote for me, but I thought if people are more open to my ideas, if you have a good story to tell and people will listen to you, then you can become universal."

Follow Corey Arvin on Twitter @coreyarvin for upcoming features and the latest information on BlackVoiceNews.com.

Corey Arvin is a contributing writer for Black Voice News who has worked as a Staff Writer and Online News Producer for Los Angeles News Group, as well as a Staff Writer for the Press-Enterprise Co. He was also a recipient of the Scripps Howard Foundation National Journalism Award for Web Reporting.

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