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.
To the degree that anyone might have commented on Ms. Sanchez’s complexion (few would), she could just as easily have been seen as almost anything she wished — Irish, Italian or Greek, or perhaps a John Boehner look-alike for that matter — and therefore deserving of no particularly advantageous ethnic tribal identification.
Again, literally millions of Americans make these conscious transitions because the next generation is slowly becoming a color-blind society, and so they realize that without a cachet, they are simply one with the majority.
I need not remind our readers that our president is voting present here. He was variously known, formally and informally, as Barry Obama, Barry Dunham, Barry Soetoro, Barack Obama, Barack Dunham, Barack Soetoro, Barrack Hussein Obama — I fear, at least in his mature years, depending on the degree to which he found advantage among particular audiences. (In his first interview, with al-Arabiya, Barack Obama suddenly alluded to his middle name Hussein, a supposedly taboo slur just weeks earlier in the campaign when evil white males had emphasized it, supposedly motivated by xenophobic and racial bias.)
4) Are we all thoroughbreds? Ms. Sanchez apparently would believe in the Old Confederacy notion of one-drop-of-blood purity. What exactly does the former Mrs. Brixey believe is “our community”? Did her one-time husband belong to it? If she had had children and if they were of mixed ancestry, would they have belonged (or at least half-way belonged) or not at all?
In my immediate family and circle of friends, I count 11 so-called “mixed marriages” among Mexican-Americans and “whites.” What are their children? If their fathers are white, how do they show racial solidarity (e.g. “Paul Wilson” becomes “Pablo Wilson”?), and to what end (does the next generation continue this allotment, and, if so, to what drop of blood in this era of DNA retrieval?)?
In short, Ms. Sanchez appears a racial opportunist in a society in which intermarriage, assimilation, and integration are dynamic, not fossilized. That is the only good news in this sad racial labyrinth: at some point we are going to be so mixed up that the federal government simply will not be able to quite determine our race and thus our claims as victims on the public purse. And, again, race has become such a flimsy attachment that one picks it up and puts it down at will?
A final thought. A recent poll suggested that African-Americans support the president at a 91% rate versus 36% of whites. An alien from Mars might think the former saw race more as essential rather than incidental than did the latter. Obama seems to recognize that — the Skip Gates incident and others secure the base more than alienate others. All the clingers, typical white person, and Rev. Wright chauvinism of the campaign has been reified by “cowards,” “wise Latina,” arresting innocents on their way to ice cream, and stupidly acting and stereotyping police — and all the other occasions in which the president and his appointees have tried to stress, rather than downplay, racial singularity. Yet to infer that Obama channels, in a far more sophisticated and nuanced fashion, the opportunism of a Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton is considered blasphemy.
Note we saw real bathos when he addressed the Congressional Black Caucus and appealed to it in moral terms of abolishing slavery and Jim Crow, race again being the subtext, as in evil white conservatives now doing to the president what slave-owners had once done to blacks. Obama, the reformer and advocate of ethical standards, spoke before an audience that included Reps. Johnson, Rangel, and Waters, who all abused their positions of power and influence on behalf of self, family, and cronies. But then that’s the point of racialism — we all become nameless, faceless people without unique identities, free will, moral judgment or responsibilities, when racial divides pronounce us either noble victims or ignoble oppressors.
As I have written earlier, when Barack Obama gets through we will be far more racially polarized than in the past, largely because the president saw the country as he habitually did the Ivy League — a naïve majority of largely guilt-ridden affluent whites who would be happy to receive penance from Obama in exchange for waiving the rules of merit and performance. As a consequence, most of the president’s “like a dog” recent petulance understandably arises from his furor that skeptical voters are not push-over Harvard deans. Therefore he must for the first time in his life perform and be judged as Barack Obama, a working president — and not as Barack Obama, an image to be manipulated for careerist purposes.
Her macaca moment
What then drove Ms. Sanchez to act so foolishly? She was furious that she might lose her ethnically “given” seat and naturally appealed in tribal terms rather than to her own record of performance. To add insult to injury, she could not so easily invoke white racism to explain her close race, and so was reduced to whipping up fears of a conservative-Vietnamese nexus that “takes” things away.
Let us hope she loses this election — and loses for her obscene example of careerist racial chauvinism.