Losing the Hispanic Vote

In her 2008 biography of Ida Wells Barnett, historian Paula Giddings recounts how in 1880, during the brief light of Reconstruction, Republicans swept the Tennessee state elections on the strength of the black vote, which included the election of four black assemblymen. One of them, Thomas Cassels, proposed a bill that would legalize interracial marriage but criminalize "carnal intercourse" outside it. The bill was an effort to hold white men responsible for the "illegitimate" children they were having with black women.

The bill didn't pass. Instead, white Republicans and Democrats joined together in a centrist compromise to pass a bill criminalizing interracial marriage and cohabitation but not sexual intercourse. It was fine for white men to sleep with black women and have as many children as they wanted as long as the relationship wasn't considered legitimate.

It was an lesson in political betrayal for black Americans, who in the aftermath of the Civil War watched their allies in the Republican Party take them for granted. The ties between black Americans and the Republican Party slowly dissolved as the GOP proved itself unwilling or unable to continue a sustained struggle for black rights following the Civil War. Black people began to view the struggle for rights more pragmatically, and instead of being loyal to a single party, would support those politicians that supported the black struggle for equal rights. The result was that less than 100 hundred years later, black people emerged as the base of the Democratic Party, once the party of states rights, segregation, and Dixie. It was an outcome that would have seemed unlikely during Reconstruction.

The emergence of Arizona's controversial immigration law, SB 1070, has prompted some political analysts to predict doom for the Republican Party. The reasoning is that by targeting Hispanics so explicitly, the GOP will place them firmly in the Democratic column the way that President Lyndon Johnson's support for civil rights brought black Americans into what was once the party of Dixie. In 2010, where the older whites that make up the GOP's base are a shrinking part of the electorate, this path is risky. In the projected America of 2042, where minorities will outnumber whites, it's political suicide. But history suggests that if the Democrats simply decide to allow the GOP to alienate Hispanics without making a strong bid to protect their rights, that outcome is unlikely.

While the Republican-controlled state Legislature in Arizona went back and altered the bill to deflect criticism that it allows racial profiling, everyone both in and outside of Arizona knows the law is directed at the state's documented and undocumented Hispanic residents. The changes prohibit officers from considering "race, color or national origin" in establishing reasonable suspicion that someone is in the country illegally, but they also direct police to inquire about the status of people they come in contact with when investigating city ordinance violations.

An e-mail from one of the authors of the bill, Immigration Reform Law Institute lawyer Kris Kobach, obtained by Think Progress' Wonk Room, is clarifying. In the e-mail, Kobach cites examples of ordinance violations police could use as reasons for checking immigration status, including "cars on blocks in the yard" or "too many occupants of a rental accommodation." Instead of the straightforward racial profiling allowed under the original bill, these city ordinance violations will be used as a pretext for profiling Hispanic residents under an ostensibly colorblind, class-based rubric. The operating principle of laws directed at particular groups in the United States is plausible deniability. The changes aren't meant to change the intended outcome of the original bill; they're an alibi for when it ultimately does what it is supposed to do.

Conservatives have defended the law either by denying or rationalizing its obvious consequences or by arguing that the immigration situation is so dire that something has to be done, even if it is draconian and unfair. The law is defended as a rational response to the violence spilling over from Mexico, brought to Arizona on the backs of undocumented immigrants, who are flooding into the state in ever-increasing numbers.

Except the evidence suggests all parts of that defense are inaccurate. According to the Migration Policy Institute, the number of undocumented immigrants decreased by more than 1 million between 2007 and 2009. In Arizona, the undocumented population dropped 13 percent. Not only do studies suggest undocumented immigrants commit crimes at a lower rate than native-born Americans, but studies done by the FBI show that the border violence has not spilled over. Recent media reports suggest the murder of rancher Robert Krentz, used as a symbol of immigrant violence by the bill's supporters, may not have been committed by an immigrant after all.

The fervor that led to SB 1070 may be based on misperceptions about crime, or the myth that undocumented immigrants don't pay taxes. But it's also premised on a creeping cultural anxiety among some Americans who see Hispanics, regardless of citizenship status, as fundamentally "alien." As Arizona state Rep. Russell Pearce, one of the authors of the bill and a man with an uncomfortable habit of "accidentally" associating himself with white supremacist groups told National Public Radio, Hispanics have a different "way of doing business" from "Americans." He characterizes his support for tougher immigration laws as an attempt to "take back America one state at a time."

In some ways, the misperceptions and racial myths about Hispanics mimic those held about blacks after the Civil War. One of the ways white Republicans rationalized their decision to abandon legislative efforts to enfranchise and protect black Americans in the post-Civil War South was the supposed skyrocketing crime rates blamed on recently emancipated black Americans who simply couldn't handle their freedom. As Douglas Blackmon writes in his 2008 book Slavery by Another Name , the crime myths of Reconstruction were simply a pretext for Southern whites to reassert political dominance over the black population, and the harsh laws passed against petty crimes were Trojan Horses meant to provide free black labor under the guise of criminal punishment.

The "cars in the yard" of the 1800s were charges of "changing employers without permission" and "vagrancy." Republicans, once the guardians of black rights, ultimately sealed the migration of the black vote to the Democratic Party by abdicating their responsibility to ensure all Americans were treated equal. They either chose, like Herbert Hoover, to abandon the cause entirely or, like Calvin Coolidge, simply proved too unable to get the job done. The racism of the old Democratic Party wasn't enough to keep the black vote Republican, and the anti-immigrant sentiment of today's GOP won't keep Latinos voting Democratic if they ultimately get nothing out of it. Latinos today, like black Americans in the past, won?t just be looking for a party that will reach out to them rhetorically -- they will want parties and politicians that can achieve their legislative goals.

The Arizona law may not survive a constitutional challenge, because it gives state officials the authority to regulate immigration, which is the province of the federal government. But if Democrats refuse to offer a strong alternative to the GOP on immigration, one that protects Hispanic rights, Democrats may find themselves a few generations from now scratching their heads, wondering how they lost the Hispanic vote to a party that once advocated racial profiling. The GOP strategy is risky, but ultimately, the Democrats have more to lose.

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