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Rep. Loretta Sanchez and the Bathos of Race

October 5th, 2010 - 10:51 am

Race on the Brain Again

Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-CA) recently caused a mini-controversy (they always are mini- if the offender is a self-declared progressive “person of color”). She appeared on Spanish-language television to warn her Orange County Hispanic constituents about her diabolic opponent, one Van Tran — as in terms of “their seat” now being stolen by the “Vietnamese”:

The Vietnamese and the Republicans are — with intensity — trying to take away this seat, this seat for which we have already done so much for our community. [Taking] this seat from us and [giving] it to this Van Tran, who’s very anti-immigrant and very anti-Hispanic.”

Translation? Tran is assumed to be a racist for daring to run for office against a Mexican-American, and thus by extension, “our community.” He is not a unique individual, but simply a Vietnamese puppet who succeeds by being “given” something that is “taken” from others.

“Pro-Hispanic” Sanchez, remember, originally won the seat in 1996 from Bob Dornan amid charges of voting irregularities (a congressional inquiry found that, in fact, a number of illegal aliens had voted). Shortly before she ran for Congress, Ms. Sanchez also reconstructed her persona from a previously moderate Republican who had failed to win a city council seat as one Loretta Brixey (her married name), to a new liberal Latina Democrat, Loretta Sanchez (her maiden name).

I dwell on this particular congressional race, because I think Ms. Sanchez’s opportunism and racialism emblemize the corruption of the entire identity politics industry. I suggest why and how that is so, simply by posing the following questions. Here we go:

1) What does “from us” mean? Most obviously, note the sad return of the old tribal notion of “seats” belonging to particular constituencies — as if we have made no progress since the 19th-century boroughs of New York. “This seat” that Mr. Tran and his supporters want “to take” reminds us that Ms. Sanchez believes (and why not?) that there are things like brown, black, white, and assorted racially awarded seats (e.g., “to give”), not districts in which people simply vote.

Particular landscapes must have tribal identifications that supersede all other elements of one’s identity. If you live in her district and do not belong to “our community,” do you have representation? Is Mr. Tran by reason of his race not able to win on his own, but must be given the seat from unnamed “Republican” bad actors?

2) But in a larger sense, what exactly is “race” these days? Mr. Sanchez grew up in middle-class circumstances of a sort, the daughter of a union machinist and a secretary. She and all her siblings attended college. She lived for a time with her “white” former husband in Palos Verdes. Mr. Tran, in contrast, as Ms. Sanchez’s “anti-immigrant,” is the only immigrant in the race — who braved war and ruin to come to the United States.

Ms. Sanchez freely indulges in the racist xenophobia of the bogeymen Vietnamese trying to rob noble Latinos of their racially assigned quotas. She does all that because Sanchez assumes that in our racial Animal Farm, some tribes are deemed more equal than others. African-American and Mexican-American elites, by virtue of large, self-identified constituent populations and a pattern of bloc voting, have established an unfortunate sense of political entitlement that no longer has much to do with skin color or current supposedly prejudicial attitudes.

Dark Indian immigrants, or Asians like the immigrant Mr. Tran, supposedly have fewer claims on historical oppression and face fewer obstacles from the tyrannical “white majority” than does Ms. Sanchez. Hence the freedom with which she slurs Mr. Tran in expectation of only marginally greater consequences than had she done the same to a white candidate. Politics, I know, has a lot to do with it. If Ms. Sanchez were a right-wing Republican and Mr. Tran a “progressive,” then we probably would hear innuendo that Sanchez was a second-generation sell-out and Tran an authentic American hero fighting racial oppression. Such identification reminds me of the old cotton or tobacco allotments that allowed one farmer to sell his right not to produce to another — to the point where most had long forgotten why they had existed in the first place.

3) So who is what and why — and when? As I said, Ms. Sanchez in a former persona was one Loretta Brixey or, in some accounts, apparently Sanchez-Brixey, a one-time Palos Verdes Estates resident and Republican wannabe councilwoman—until Congressman Dornan was deemed vulnerable to ethnic bloc voting and the prize of a congressional seat beckoned. At some magical moment, she morphed from the country-and-western sounding “Loretta Brixey” to the more authentic sounding Latina Loretta Sanchez, her maiden name perhaps much better reflecting her new found liberal politics and the changing demography of her district.

In deference to Ms. Sanchez, note this is standard fare these days in America. I cannot count the number of Hispanic students I have had who had a divine revelation in the university (e.g., scholarships, awards, admissions, etc.) and thus reinvented themselves after 20 years of being pedestrian Joe Lopez into a trilling José López, or seemingly ordinary Mrs. Hope Smith into Chicana Esperanza Smith-Rodriguez. The more disingenuous might suggest that the name-change was angst over being robbed of an ancestry by the oppressive norms of white society; the more honest confess to careerist concerns (or as one student put it, “Hey, Dr. Hanson, if Swedes got diversity points, you’d be Olaf Hanson in a blink.” [In fact, I have a nephew “Leif” and a brother “Nels,” named after ancestors]).

But also note why these metamorphoses apparently are deemed so advantageous. Had she remained the former upper middle-class Loretta Brixey of Palos Verdes, many might have suspected that she was not Mexican-American at all. (i.e., she would have had to run on her platform and record rather than the implicit promise of racial solidarity).

More importantly, note the further incongruity: one these days in almost an eye blink can evolve into a supposedly victimized minority and leave the “safe” white identification. But in racially prejudiced societies, was not the opposite supposed to be true, of minorities of mixed ancestry being forced to pass as being white to escape endemic bias? Or is that also a revelation — that one now easily passes from one identity to another in search of, rather than escaping from, the assurance that race trumps merit. In Great Gatsby fashion, we simply reinvent ourselves into whatever best serves our careers, with the expectation that no one in politics or the university dares to question motives. And is that somewhat good news in the sense that race is reduced to a mere construct, freely assumed and rejected as needed?

At one point in the university, I knew eight Spanish and South American dual citizens that had piggy-backed on the Chicano brand, and were deemed “diversity” and “affirmative action” faculty by virtue of their Hispanic surnames, accented nomenclature, and opportunistic trills. Most were quite honest and cynical about it, and seemed to think the problem was the university’s, not their own.

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