By Earl Ofari Hutchinson
New America Media
The tremor from the illegal immigration fight has shaken Democrats and Republicans. But it also threatens a sea change in black politics. Though Latinos have displaced blacks as the nation’s biggest minority group, the popular notion lingers that they are years away from packing the political wallop of black voters and politicians. Language, citizenship, age, and lack of education supposedly prevent millions of legal and illegal Latino immigrants from muscling out blacks from the top spot in ethnic politics. The illegal immigration battle has shattered that myth.
In 2000, the 23 million blacks eligible to vote dwarfed the 13 million eligible Latino voters, even though Latinos had by then virtually reached parity with blacks in the population. More than one-third of the Latino population was less than 18 years old. Forty percent of Latinos who were of eligible voting age were non-citizens. Only 5 percent of blacks that were of voting age were non-citizens.
Those numbers are quickly changing. Since the 2000 election the number of Latinos of voting age and who are citizens has jumped. Beyond just eligibility, there are now an estimated 10 million Latino registered voters. That compares more favorably with the 15 million black voters in the 2004 election.
The surge in registered voters is not the only shift that has changed ethnic politics in America. In past elections, the majority of the Latino vote was concentrated in California, Texas, Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado. In the 2006 national elections, helped by the sharp increase in the number of legal and illegal immigrants in the Midwest and Northeastern states, the Latino vote will have national impact.
Democrat and Republican strategists will dump millions into Spanish language ads, pitches, and pleas for votes on Spanish language stations. When, not if, Democrats and Republicans cut an immigration reform deal, one of its features almost certainly will include some form of legalization plan that within a few years will turn thousands more Latino immigrants into vote-casting American citizens. Democrats and Republicans will pour even more time, money, and personnel into courting Latino voters. The reasoning is that the potential political gain from a massive outreach effort to Latinos is far greater than putting the same resources into courting black voters.
It’s sound political reasoning. That effort worked for Republicans in 2004, when Bush got nearly 40 percent of the Latino vote. The Democrats, meanwhile, maintain a solid lock on the black vote. In every election since 1964, blacks have given more than 80 to 90 percent of their votes to the Democrats. The sight of thousands of blacks fleeing for their lives from Katrina floodwaters in New Orleans and Bush’s initial comatose response to their plight further infuriated blacks. That wrecked Bush and the GOP’s carefully micromanaged effort to woo more black votes to the GOP. It would take a political miracle for the next GOP presidential candidate to duplicate the mild bump up in black support that Bush got in the 2004 election.
With the tantalizing prospect of large numbers of newly enfranchised Latino voters voting Republican, there’s no political incentive for Republicans to try to do more to get the black vote. That even includes its relentless pursuit of the black evangelicals. Hispanic evangelical churches have an estimated 20 million members and those numbers are growing yearly. According to a survey by the Hispanic Churches in American Public Life project, the majority of Latino evangelicals are conservative, pro-family, anti-abortion and anti-gay marriage. Latino evangelicals are GOP-friendly and they have political clout. They got several mainstream evangelical groups to back the Senate compromise immigration reform bill. And while the National Association of Evangelicals stopped short of backing the Senate bill, it still urged “humane” immigration reform.
The leap in Latino voting strength and the likely prospect that Democrats and Republicans can bag even more voters from the rising number of legal and illegal immigrants comes at a bad time for black politicians. Though the number of black elected officials has held steady in state offices and in Congress, their spectacular growth of prior years has flattened out. According to the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, the slight increase in the number of black elected officials has been in only a handful of Deep South states and Illinois.
There is some evidence that mainstream Democrats are already de-emphasizing traditional black issues.
During the 2004 Democratic presidential primaries the seven white male Democratic presidential contenders were virtually mute on miserably failing inner city schools, soaring black unemployment, prison incarceration, and the HIV/AIDS crisis that has torn black communities. It took loud grumbles from the Congressional Black Caucus and other black Democrats for Democratic presidential contender John Kerry to make a few cautious and circumspect statements on some of these issues.
The hard reality is that immigration, both legal and illegal, has drastically changed Americans’ ethnic and political landscape. Black voters and elected officials have no choice but to come to grips with that change and try making it work for them, not against them.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an associate editor at New America Media and the author of “The Crisis in Black and Black.”