Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Black-Brown Divide is real; Obama knows it

In unusually harsh words, members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus recently condemned leadership of their own political party and the House of Representatives for caving in to right wing groups on immigration legislation.

"Spineless" was one word used by a Latino Democratic lawmaker in reference to intentions by House leadership to only hold hearings on immigration bills that dealt with tougher enforcement of existing laws. Missing from the hearings would be bills to address legalization steps for undocumented workers who have established families and a community presence here and the creation of a guest worker program to better manage numbers at the border.

The move by the House leadership follows comments made earlier this year by Rep. Jim Clyburn, the highest ranking African-American in Congress. He has told Hispanic Caucus memers that they should pursue a piecemeal approach to immigration legislation. He claims that was the strategy during the Civil Rights movement.

Clyburn's analogy misses reality by a mile. First, there was the Civil Rights Act in 1964, followed by the Voting Rights Act in 1965 and the Fair Housing Act in 1968. In each instance, African-Americans and all Americans gained more rights. The movement toward progress was visible.
Yet Clyburn and the Democratic leadership are first asking the Hispanic Caucus to take a step back and allow for more punitive measures be passed first. That's not the same as the Civil Rights movement, and Clyburn knows it.

His comments and those of the House leadership simply reinforce in Hispanic minds that our needs are not respected and our opinions are not listened to -- despite our growing population numbers and economic contributions.

And that helps create what is called the Black-Brown Divide that exists in American politics today.

Sen. Barack Obama has been a victim of that divide in Democratic primary voting. And he could be an even bigger victim in the general election.

His opponent, Sen. John McCain, has a record of standing for comprehensive immigration reform instead of the piecemeal approach. And Latinos respect him for that. He also is a veteran, which is a very important symbol in Mexican-American communities. Mexican-Americans like myself do two-thirds of the voting for Hispanics in the United States. The military has been one of the few avenues that Hispanics have been able to seek and gain respect. McCain's service will carry weight.

Obama has advantages, too. He did not flip flop like Sen. Hillary Clinton on the matter of driver's licenses for undocumented workers. He has promised to seek comprehensive immigration reform in his first year in office. And his father is an immigrant. As importantly, he may be the only candidate who could start bridging the Black-Brown Divide. He certainly will be the only candidate who will be able to tell African-American leaders that Latinos are not going to the back of the bus before our issues are addressed. Justice should not discriminate.

Accordingly on the Democratic side, I endorsed Sen. Obama before the Texas primary in the nation's Hispanic press. I did not endorse on the Republican primary side because the race was already over.

House Democrats and Rep. Clyburn should be warned. They are aggravating the Black-Brown Divide at a very crucial political moment. They may win the day this session on immigration, but they very well may lose the White House, because Latinos and our leaders are damn tired of being disrespected and ignored.

(If you'd like a copy of my Obama endorsement column, please send me an e-mail.)

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