January 18, 2008

The ¡Si, Se Puede! Test for Obama

By Earl Ofari Hutchinson
New America Media


I recently had a discussion with a good friend who heads a prominent Latino social service agency in Los Angeles about the White House prospects of Democratic presidential contender Barack Obama. He lowered his voice and shamefacedly said that many Latinos that he talked with scoffed or sneered at the idea of voting for Obama.

When I asked why, his answer was blunt. They just can’t see themselves voting for a black guy. The disdain, or less charitably bigotry, that he said many Latinos express toward Obama is anecdotal and can hardly be taken as the sentiment of most Latinos. But that some expressed that sentiment is not surprising.

A recent New America Media poll on race relations found that almost half of Latinos said that blacks were crime prone and that they feared for their safety around them. A slight majority of blacks returned the negative typecast compliment and said that Latinos take jobs from blacks and they are out to undercut their political power. If the negative stereotypes, fear and wariness that many Latinos have of blacks spills over into the voting booth, it could spell trouble for Obama.

The big test is whether he can overcome the racial fears to make a big, or at least a respectable enough, showing among Latino voters in Nevada and California in the upcoming primaries, and if he gets the Democratic presidential nod, in the general election. That’s crucial, since the Latino population and voting numbers have swelled in the past few years in the western states. The increase has suddenly put these states in play for the Democrats. Nevada is a near textbook example of how the Latino vote has gotten so big that it is now hotly contested by Democrats and Republicans.

The Latino vote was barely a blip on the political chart in the state in the last two presidential elections. Now, however, Latinos make up one quarter of the state’s population and nearly fifteen percent of the voters. The January 19 primary will be the first real test of whether Obama can sell his “change agent” pitch to a large enough number of Latino voters to make a dent in Hillary Clinton’s bulging numbers among Latinos. That will tell much about his prospects for getting their votes in the other western states.

Obama has a double burden in trying to the gap with Latino voters. He must sell himself as a candidate who can win, and who can repair the shambles of Bush’s foreign and domestic policies. That means touting immigration reform and ending the war. These are sore point issues with Latino voters. Obama has an added burden. He must also sell himself as a candidate who can be ethnic neutral when it comes to fighting hard for Latino interests.

At first glance it appears that Obama took a big step toward quelling doubts and racial suspicions among Latinos when he bagged the endorsement of the Culinary Workers Union in Nevada. Hispanics make up nearly half of the union membership.

He banks heavily that the union leaders can help sell him and his candidacy to the rank and file. But the jury’s still way out on that. The union endorsement came late. And it’s an endorsement that came top down from the leadership. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the rank and file will dutifully punch the ticket for Obama.

Few, in fact, knew who he was a few months ago. According to polls last August Obama was still a mystery man to most Latinos. His popularity among them then wallowed in the single digit numbers. The unfamiliarity with and even wariness of him was evident when he addressed the National Council of La Raza convention last year in Miami. He got polite but reserved applause from some for his backing of a border fence between Mexico and the United States in the Senate, and his less than stellar explanation as to why he did it.

Since then his visibility has risen among most Latinos. They now know that he’s a leading presidential candidate. Yet, it’s still anybody’s guess as to whether Obama’s visibility will translate into increased popularity with Latinos and whether that in turn will translate into a bump up, or even nudge up, in the numbers of Latinos that will back him in Nevada and other western states.

Obama has spent a mini king’s ransom on Spanish-language radio ads in Nevada and is courting like crazy union officials and Latino elected officials there and elsewhere. Soon he will flood the streets with a small force of bilingual organizers. In a talk at the Culinary Workers Union meeting in Las Vegas a week before the state’s primary, Obama shouted to the crowd the stirring union rally mantra of ¡Si, se puede! — Yes, I Can! Nevada and beyond will test whether he really can with Latino voters.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His forthcoming book is “The Ethnic Presidency: How Race Decides the Race to the White House” (Middle Passage Press, February, 2007).

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