California's Multiracial Challenge to America
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Sixty years ago, Carey McWilliams, the well-traveled writer/activist and soon to be editor of The Nation, described California as "our nation's racial frontier." As the West Coast's multiracial makeup posed new problems and challenges, it also offered America "one more chance, perhaps a last chance, to establish the principle of racial equality." In this regard, it blessed California's residents and observers with "a ringside seat in the great theatre of the future."
In stunning fashion, the California Democratic primary signaled that the future has arrived with dramatic implications for the entire nation. There has never been an important election like this where a candidate failed to win African Americans and whites but won overall-as Clinton did in California. Once again, California flipped the script. Latinos and Asians carried Hillary to victory in California on their backs and quite likely salvaged her entire campaign. The national media has now come around to the idea of Latinos as a "sleeping giant," and the Clinton strategists deserve credit for their attentiveness to the Latino vote. While I am not holding my breath waiting for the media to overcome decades of ignorance of and marginalization of Asian Americans, the Clinton campaign has undoubtedly benefited from the significant involvement of Asian American donors, staffers, and volunteers.
This is a turning point in U.S. political history: no serious candidate for the presidency from here on out can ignore the mandate to build a multiracial coalition. Obama built an impressive biracial coalition in California, winning overwhelmingly among African Americans and splitting the white vote equally. As a result, California may help forestall the media's misguided obsession with Obama's failure to overcome the black/white racial divide. Obama may have lost, but it was not because of the "Bradley effect." Still, his defeat exposed the inadequacy of biracial thinking in the face of a multiracial reality.
Unfortunately, the pundits have already seized upon an equally divisive and reductionist theme. Interethnic relations are no longer a sideshow, but our understanding of them is severely limited. Everyone following the campaign has now read Clinton pollster Sergio Bendixen's remark, "The Hispanic voter -- and I want to say this very carefully -- has not shown a lot of willingness or affinity to support black candidates." Also surfacing less noticeably in places like online forums was the assertion that racial prejudice inhibits Asian Americans from voting for Blacks.
While prejudice and narrow-mindedness circulates in various forms within sectors of the Latino and Asian populations, crude thinking can blind us to the less sensational but more significant reasons why Clinton prevailed. She had built up a huge lead and enjoyed immense name recognition, which translated into a huge lead in absentee voting. In many places, Obama has overcome these obstacles with an excellent ground game that has attracted and energized new voters. Local observers, however, have remarked that his campaign lacked either the time or proper strategy to develop effective grassroots outreach to Latinos and Asians in California.
More than being pushed away from Obama, Asian and Latino voters were pulled to Clinton. It was during Bill Clinton's terms in office that Democrats solidified Latino and Asian "bloc votes" by paying some attention to their concerns, giving ethnic leaders a modicum of access to the party machinery, and distributing some symbolic spoils of victory. Jeff Chang helps us to understand the appeal of such "interest group" recognition to "emergent" minority groups. Hillary's campaign has elevated this recognition, such that the Asian and Latino "blocs" are now crucial to her traditional political strategy -- one that seeks to build a coalition by appealing to the self-interests of multiple constituencies, including gays and lesbians, seniors, environmentalists, and of course women as "the largest interest group." No doubt if she wins the nomination, she will hold out the promise of patronage and appointments to attempt to bring blacks as an "interest group" back into the fold.
But if Clinton's multicultural strategy is unprecedented, Obama's effort to transcend "minority" politics is historic. Casting Obama as a "colorblind" politician, the pundits and his left skeptics have largely missed the significance of what he represents. Getting "beyond race" today is not about ignoring the problem of racism or moderating ones politics to appease whites. Instead, it means thinking about America as a multiracial nation that dispels old notions of both white normativity and majority/minority identities. Culturally and demographically, millions of Americans -- especially youth -- already live in a world where that notion of white majority has been displaced by a multiethnic reality. Obama is helping us to envision what a new majority will look like politically.
For this reason, the Obama campaign is the only one with movement building potential and why we all have a stake in its efforts to build a multiracial coalition on new ground. Following the dictates of pollsters and consultants, traditional Democrats carve us all up into "interest groups," so they can push the hot buttons that reinforce our sense of victimization and vilify the other side. Obama has learned -- both from his study of what historian Charles Payne has called the black freedom struggle's "organizing tradition" and from his experience organizing against the depths of despair in Chicago's deindustrialized South Side -- that such an approach is not only ineffective but also spiritually bankrupt. If you are just a "minority leader," then you're not really a leader at all. If you are only fighting for your "fair share" of the riches controlled by those in power, you'll never address the root causes of oppression. Above all is the sense that none of us can be free in America or face the global crises of our lifetime until we change the whole country. That is why Obama has the "audacity" to think he is the best person to lead the entire nation.
It is clear from the California result that we will now be witness to a paradigm shifting clash between two consciously multiracial organizing strategies. Clinton's appeal is to give all minorities a seat at the table and a share of the pie. Obama challenges us to see ourselves instead as a collective majority. The fact that black voters have switched nearly wholesale from Clinton to Obama is far more noteworthy than the pundits acknowledge, signaling trouble not only for Hillary but for all black politicians who have pledged allegiance to the Democratic machine. Now we will see the degree to which Latinos and Asians will forego the certainties Clinton promises to embrace the challenge and hope Obama offers.
There is no reason to predict what will happen with the rest of the campaign. The choice is clear. This is a moment when critical ideas and actions will prove decisive not only to the future of the Democratic Party but also the fate of the whole nation.
Scott Kurashige is an associate professor at the University of Michigan and author of The Shifting Grounds of Race: Black and Japanese Americans in the Making of Multiethnic Los Angeles (Princeton University Press, 2008).