Monday, November 24, 2008

Identity Politics in an Obama America?

Isn't it time to end the identity politics, whereby political officials are evaluated, supported, or promoted mainly because they are of a certain race, ethnicity, or sex, rather than for what they stand for? Too often the results are characterless figures like Alberto Gonzales and Clarence Thomas who are party loyalists, not champions of the disadvantaged or disempowered.
Apparently not. Before the election the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda, a coalition of more than two dozen Latino organizations, sent both candidates a list of policy recommendations, including a demand that the new administration increase Hispanic political appointments and name more Hispanics to the federal bench.
After Obama's victory, Latino groups, collectively and individually, began pressuring for Latino hires.
The country had just elected its first African-American president, who won popular support with a message of inclusion and change. But elite Latino groups, led by the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda, insist that the large Latino election-day turnout for Democrats should be rewarded with increased Latino appointments in the new administration.
The National Hispanic Leadership Agenda, headed by the president of the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund (MALDF), sent a letter signed by 35 Latino groups to Obama urging him to nominate Bill Richardson as his secretary of state.
Ruben Navarrette, a syndicated Latino columnist, espouses identity politics yet he is skeptical that they will work the way they should for Latinos. In a column this week, Navarrette wrote: "Expect Latinos to get shortchanged—again. They may get bought off with a couple of high profile appointments. Bill Richardson is already mentioned as a possible secretary of State and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa could also be in line for a prominent role in the new administration. As someone who made history, Obama could also make more of it by appointing the first Latino to the Supreme Court."
In addition to Richardson, the main hopefuls to fill slots at high levels of the new administration include Denver Mayor Federico Peña, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Tampa lawyer Frank Sanchez, Mariano-Forentino "Tino" Cuéllar, former AFL-CIO Vice President Linda Chavez-Thompson, and former SEC Commissioner Roel Campos.
These and other names proffered by Latino groups are all Latinos. That makes sense, if one accepts politics as usual. In modern America the practice of promoting to political office members of ethnic and racial sectors by identity groups has helped open the political system to previously disenfranchised groups.
Undoubtedly this type of special interest lobbying has served the cause of civil rights in America—the best example being the current presence of African Americans at high levels of local and federal government. But it is fraught with problems.
Those advancing in the political system with the support of identity groups may share the same color and culture of their promoters but their advancement may not necessarily serve the best interests either of their identity group or of the American people as a whole, as in the case of Gonzales or the many anti-feminist women in conservative administrations.
What made good sense and good politics in the past may no longer serve either identity groups or the common good. Lobbying for public figures solely because they belong to a particular race, sex, or national origin does not guarantee advantages for that group.
Rather than playing identity politics as usual in identifying individuals to serve and represent all Americans, Latino constituencies and organizations would do better to develop a set of priorities for their communities and focus primarily on the beliefs and commitments of the nominees rather than numerical benchmarks. Then, they could recommend a slate of individuals, including many of the Latinos that all Americans have come to respect, who measure up.
Identity politics in an Obama America? It's time for a change.


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