Politics boils down to box checking. It’s not a perfect prediction, but the boxes we check on our Census forms—religion, race, ethnicity, sex, even region—do a pretty good job of describing our political preferences.
Voters and candidates fall into neat categorizations as being Latino, Black, White, Evangelical, Jewish, etc. But as next week’s mayoral race in Los Angeles shows politics has gone outside the box.
The top contenders in the L.A. mayoral race are a melting pot of identities. There’s Eric Garcetti who is of Italian, Mexican, and Jewish descent. Then there are two women, Jan Perry, who is black and converted to Judaism many years ago and Wendy Greuel who is white but is married to a Jewish man. This race is non-partisan so voters don’t even have the informational short-cut of sorting out the candidates by party.
This race is so fascinating not just because it’s taking place in our nation’s second largest city, but because it’s a microcosm of what is going on in our nation. Identity politics today is more about a mixture than clear boundaries.
Let’s take our President, his mother was white from Kansas and father was black, from Kenya. President Obama then grew up in Hawaii a state with strong Asian-Pacific cultural context and ultimately settled in the South Side of Chicago.
The blurring of identity lines is becoming increasingly prevalent in the 21st Century. Last year the Pew Research Center released a study showing that rates of intermarriage stands at 15 percent, having doubled in the past 30 years. More specifically, we see a quarter of Latinos and Asians marrying a spouse from a different race or ethnicity while 9 percent of whites and 17 percent of blacks also marry out. It is remarkable to see these rates, it wasn’t until 1967 with Loving v. Virginia that anti-miscegenation laws that criminalized interracial/interethnic marriage were finally struck down.
And it’s not just about what you look like or what boxes your parents check, but how you feel. Let’s take Latinos. Another recent Pew study looks at how Latinos self-identify. They found that for one-fifth of Latinos the identity of “American” best describes who they are. Also, among what we generically term as Latinos, over half of these individuals more closely identify with their ancestor’s country of origin (e.g. Mexico or Puerto Rico) rather than with the larger pan-ethnic label.
Fifty years ago the majority of the American electorate was white. By extension, the arena of politics consisted of white, protestant males. Following the Civil Rights Movement we moved into a black-white-brown framework that also brought in women, Catholics, Jews, Mormons, and Muslims into the political arena. Most recently we also see people who identify as LGBT entering the political arena. In other words, this is not the political or social landscape of the Mad Men days.
There is no one dominant identity in our society and we are starting to see that complexity reflected in our political institutions. True, the vast majority of our Congressional leaders are still white males, but at the local level diversity is becoming the rule rather than the exception.
Regardless of the outcome of Tuesday’s race, the city of Angeles will have as their leader someone who reflects the new America—one that doesn’t fit neatly into just one box.
Dr. Victoria M. DeFrancesco Soto is an NBC Latino and MSNBC contributor, Senior Analyst for Latino Decisions and Fellow at the Center for Politics and Governance at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, at Austin.