Identity politics get results in terms of the increased presence of the groups being promoted. But the election of an African-American president may signal that it’s time to leave identity politics behind when it comes to governance and embrace the politics of the common good.
Every four years Latino groups come together to demand that the incoming administration appoint Latinos to the cabinet and other high-level positions. The results, too often, have been appointments that dismay, such as former Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretaries Henry Cisneros and Mel Martinez and former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.
Latino groups, as varied as the Hispanic Alliance for Prosperity and the National Council of La Raza, celebrated Bush’s nomination of Alberto Gonzales for attorney general in November 2004. Despite his weak credentials and ideological righteousness, Gonzales was widely praised during the confirmation process and later defended by Latino groups.
The National Council of La Raza, which is currently calling for President-elect Obama to nominate Latinos to his cabinet, had criticized President Bush for not bringing a Latino into his cabinet after the departure of conservative Mel Martinez. "We are very encouraged by the Gonzales nomination," declared NCLR. "We previously criticized the Bush administration for not having a Hispanic in the cabinet since the departure of former HUD secretary, now Senator-elect, Mel Martinez. We are pleased that one of the first acts since the president’s reelection both rectifies that situation and marks an historic milestone for the Latino community."
"Never before has a Hispanic served as head of one of the four major cabinet posts—secretary of State, Treasury, Defense, and attorney general," stated Janet Murguia, NCLR Executive Director.
Not a word about his political views. Being Latino seemed to be sufficient, and that NCLR considered Gonzales to be "a thoughtful, reasonable public servant, a man of his word."
This idea that a Latino in high places is good for all Latinos persisted within the Latino community through Gonzales’ sorry tenure as the country’s chief defender of the Constitution. In March 2007, the Hispanic Alliance for Prosperity issued a media release in support of the beleaguered Gonzales. "On behalf of the nearly 20,000 members of the HAP Institute, we write to reject calls for the resignation of Attorney General Al Gonzales, and offer our full support for his long-term service to our president, our country, and the Hispanic community."
It continued, "Attorney General Gonzales has achieved what few other Hispanics have been able to accomplish. He is a role model for the entire Hispanic community and his success proves to our children that they too can realize their dreams. General Gonzales should not be used as a scapegoat by those who are against the policies of the current administration. The Hispanic community will not tolerate partisan politics, with the end result being to sacrifice one of its most respected and productive members."
When Gonzales was finally forced the resign due to multiple scandals involving his justification of torture and intervention in appointing and dismissing U.S. attorneys according to political criteria, the groups had little to say.
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.
Politico reported: " Weeks before Barack Obama won the presidency, he met privately in Washington with his former Democratic rival, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, and Latino political leaders who had fervently backed her bid."
"The cards were laid upon the table, according to one of the participants. The Hispanic leaders said they expected at least two Latinos to be named to an Obama Cabinet—meeting the standard set by President-elect Bill Clinton in 1992—but preferred three. Of course, they also wanted sub-Cabinet-level posts," according to Politico.
Attending that meeting, Raul Yzaguirre, former president of the National Council of La Raza, said, "We indicated the standard had been set by both Republican and Democratic administrations of having at least two in the cabinet and everybody expected that to be the floor," adding that the meeting "helped clear the air and heal the wounds" from the contentious primary battle.
Then, 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.
Ramona Romero, president of the Hispanic National Bar Association, issued a press release that "called on the President-elect to appoint more Hispanics to the federal bench, and urged him to make history yet again by nominating a Hispanic to fill the first U.S. Supreme Court vacancy that occurs during his term."
Dr. Antonio Flores, president of the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities, sent a letter to Obama recommending 14 Hispanic college or university leaders for potential Cabinet or sub-Cabinet-level posts.
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."
"Yet when it comes to immigration, Obama will have trouble keeping his promise of comprehensive reform from last summer," predicted Navarrette, and he blamed the labor lobby for obstructing immigration reform. "As has always been the case with the immigration issue, what Democrats worry about most is antagonizing their sponsors in organized labor," asserted Navarrette.
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.
Identity should remain a criterion for leadership positions but only so far as those individuals truly represent the interests of those social sectors, bring solid skills to the job, and are committed to addressing the larger issues facing the nation.
At a time when the politics of change and inclusion has come to America, thanks to Obama and the inclusive Democratic Party (as clear in the ethnic/racial/gender make-up of the Democratic Party convention), a new modus operandi is needed.
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.