It was clear early on in Mitt Romney’s campaign that he had committed himself to the “white vote.” Of course, he had little choice. Almost 90 percent of those who voted in Republican primaries identified as white. The Republican Party has for decades gambled on the surest thing in American politics; the appeal of our country’s collective sense of whiteness.
Newsweek and Daily Beast’s columnist John Avlon, however, mischaracterizes this phenomenon by claiming that President Obama‘s appeal to minorities is a gamble, as if the democratic notion of appealing to all people is a foreign concept for democracy. Avlon’s benign assumption that the appeal to minorities is an implicit rejection of white people is false. They are not mutually exclusive in form or function. The interests of whites is the same as those of Latinos.
But while mutual exclusivity on the basis of race and ethnicity is false, it is precisely the narrative the Romney campaign has appealed to throughout the year, and Avlon is reinforcing this narrative, even if unintentionally. This is the nature of systemic racism. You breathe it.
The former chairman of the Republican National Committee admitted as much. In 2005, Ken Mehlman said, “Some Republicans gave up on winning the African American vote, looking the other way or trying to benefit politically from racial polarization. I am here today as the Republican chairman to tell you we were wrong.”
Yet this history of racial division against African-Americans hasn’t changed the tactics of the GOP’s approach towards Latino voters. When Pete Wilson’s seat as governor of California was threatened, he bet on whiteness. He blamed California’s ailing economy on undocumented immigrants, which turned into an assault on Latino identity. Of course, he won.
Jan Brewer, the governor of Arizona, found herself in a similar position in 2010. With Arizona’s economy reeling from the collapse of the housing market, Brewer faced a 50 percent unfavorability rating in the polls by February of 2010. Brewer responded by appealing to her ace in the hole; she bet on whiteness. The month after the anti-immigrant bill, SB1070, was signed, Brewer’s favorability reached its highest in her career and skyrocketed her back into office later that year.
Yet these laws can’t be explained by economics. These laws have had devastating economic results on states that embrace these laws, yet they continue to gain momentum across the country. Two researchers, Karthick Ramakrishnan and Pratheepan Gulasekaram, looked at 25,000 municipalities and all fifty states to see if anti-immigration laws could be explained simply by economics. They found that the most accurate explanation for these laws was partisan identity. In other words, the more Republican a district or state was, the more likely we are to see these laws emerge.
The GOP, however, wants us to believe that these laws have nothing to do with race. They are simply rational reactions to circumstance. They are pushbacks against the Federal government’s refusal to enforce our immigration laws.
In a highly-publicized event, Donald Trump offered the President five million dollars in exchange for the release of his college transcripts. Nobody expected the President to take him up on the offer, but that wasn’t the point. The point was to continue the assault on President Obama’s legitimacy as a rightful member of society. From the obsession with his birth certificate, his middle name or his father’s nationality, the whole purpose is to appeal to the country’s sense of whiteness.
There is a serious gamble going on, but the gamble is not on minorities or by Barack Obama; the gamble is being taken by the others.
Stephen A. Nuño, Ph.D., NBC Latino contributor and an Assistant Professor in the Department of Politics and International Affairs at Northern Arizona University. He is currently writing a book on Republican outreach into the Latino Community.