Hurricane Harvey and its torrential flooding rains have shocked the nation. Thousands have been rescued and many more thousands have lost their homes. It is a disaster of unprecedented proportions. Hurricane Harvey and the flooding across Houston is a historic event, but it also underlines Americans’ conflicted history with our relationship to nature.
I was born too late in a land that no longer belongs to me….They belong to a pilgrim who arrived here only yesterday whose racist tongue says to me: I hate Meskins. You’re a Meskin. Why don’t you go back to where you came from?…I was born too late or perhaps I was born to soon: It is not yet my time: this is not yet my home. I must wait for the conquering barbarian to learn the Spanish world for love.
In 1975, Chicana poet Angela De Hoyos wrote these words, asking herself in the midst of the Chicana/o Movement and Civil Rights Movement about her place in time. Was she born too late or was she born too soon? In her hometown of San Antonio, Texas, home to Spanish missions founded in the 18th century, most famously the Alamo, she didn’t feel at home. In fact, she was told that she was not home, that she needed to return, to go back to where she had come from. Lost between time and space, she hoped and ached for a moment when displacement and discord might be mitigated by the bonds of affection. De Hoyos was left waiting for the day that code-switching could transform conquerors and conquered, leaving only words of love.
Is today that day?
Seemingly. June 12, 2017 marks the 50th anniversary of Loving v. Virginia, the Supreme Court case that found antimiscegenation laws unconstitutional.
On Friday April 14, 2017, Iowa representative Steve King was a guest on Iowa Press, an Iowa public television political show. The interviewer, Kay Henderson, pressed King on criticisms that he was a racist. In response, King defended earlier statements he made with a lengthy discussion on declining fertility rates in the Netherlands and the United States. He clarified that Western nations and the U.S. were no longer meeting their replacement levels (according to him 2.15 children per mother). This was to their detriment. “If you believe in Western Civilization and you believe in the American dream and the American civilization, then we ought to care enough to reproduce ourselves,” he explained.
Henderson did not press King on his notion that civilization—a compendium of institutions, social customs, laws, economic systems, and cultural productions—could be passed on only through sexual reproduction and birth. King was asserting that civilization was genetically inherited, not learned or shared. That is, King believes that white American babies are born with a biologically determined knowledge of the English language and capitalism.
Donald Trump’s minority outreach has failed miserably. Perhaps, the most visible, or audible, sign of dissonance in Trump’s message is his constant use of the definite article “the” before the communities he’s speaking about—as in “the Blacks” “ the African-Americans,” “the Latinos, the Hispanics.” It is grating and alienating. What is so off-putting about one of the most common words used daily?
Definite articles are used with adjectives to refer to a whole group of people, but they are also used to identify a particular person, object, or item. Trump is using them correctly when he says “the Latinos,” and “the African-Americans,” but using “the” ascribes singular dimensions and monolithic proportions to diverse communities. It homogenizes people and obscures their diverse concerns and needs.
In this, Trump doesn’t need a grammar lesson, although a thesaurus wouldn’t hurt. His use of the definite article is not a syntactical flaw. His idiosyncratic word choice is ideologically revealing, a peak into the grammar—or the systematic or structural design—of his ideas. His reliance on the definite article hints at a dated understanding of identities and politics that is locked in the mid-20th century.
Weeks ago, Hillary Clinton took flak for her passing statement that half of Trump voters were a group that she would characterize as a “basket of deplorables.” Clinton was criticized by many for her statement by both left and right. She ended up apologizing for the percentage (which she claimed was “half”), but not for the statement itself.
The criticism she drew from well-intentioned liberal strategists and journalists, builds upon a theme that has grown during this election cycle. 2016 is the year of economic anxiety. During the primary season, two populist dark horses rose to prominence—Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. Their messages of economic populism struck a deep chord and brought new voters out in droves. Trump, as he likes to mention, received more votes than any other candidate in a Republican presidential primary. Similarly, Sanders energized the millennial vote, a young population that is growing in its electoral importance. The rise of these unexpected candidates was explained through their economic messages. In Sanders, young students and workers were tired of a system that burdened them with school debt and made them pay for three decades of tax cuts for the Baby-Boomer generation. In Trump, white workers saw a figure that put America first and promised to “Make America Great Again.”
While Trump declared his run for the White House on an explicitly racist note, it was not until much later—when he issued a call for a banning of all Muslim immigrants and called Judge Curiel a Mexican who was biased and unfit for the bench—that the press started to call Trump a racist. But it was always Trump who was the racist, intentionally leading his supporters astray. The white working-class was not at fault for their racism. They were economically anxious, afraid because they had lost their place in society. They were misapplying their anxieties to communities they had no contact with and couldn’t be blamed for resenting the first Black president, for wanting to deport 11 million Mexican migrants, for wanting to ban Muslims. They were sad they were making less money and losing their cultural hegemony in their nation. Trump, the snake-oil salesman, the crooked used-car salesman, was selling them the empty promise of racism and the poor white working-class was using its last bit of money to buy his magical solutions—a wall so tall that they would be protected and they wouldn’t even have to pay for it.
The notion that the white working-class was somehow tricked into racism or lacked the understanding of global economic change is deeply flawed and it is historically inaccurate. The white working-class was not tricked. They have used racism to combat their economic decline and to assert their social worth at multiple points in U.S. history. White supremacy and their connection to it helped transform them into meaningful contributors to the nation.
History is a frustrating thing. Most have learned that history is a certainty, a fact, a singular, straightforward, correct answer. Our confidence in its authoritative certainty was forged in history lessons from kindergarten through high school. Multiple-choice and true-or-false questions have honed a belief in its singular truth. The Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776. George Washington was the first president. Pearl Harbor was attacked in 1941. A+.
History is not a hard science. It is not just an accumulation of facts. History is deeply rooted in the humanities, more closely connected with literature than math or science. History is not physics—for every human action there is not an equal and opposite reaction. There is no formula that predetermines or explains the cause and effect of past and present. Historians craft the cause and explain the effect. While dates, times, bills, and people are facts, they have no larger meaning without the analytical work that people must do. History is how we make meaning. History is how we explain the past and make sense of the present. History is not infallible; it is interpretive. Yet, history has been used in the exercise of politics as a form of concrete evidence. Politicians and influential leaders have wielded history in their bidding to influence the American electorate.
In Berkeley, CA in 1964, Free Speech Movement leader Mario Savio decried the old institutions of social change had been compromised. Unions, universities, the government, all had been bureaucratized, which meant in the langue of their time, sterilized, scrubbed clean, and removed of their humanity. Liberalism had failed them; in the quest for systematic reform the engine of social changed and stalled and become a monstrous machine instead.
The time for radical change, possibly revolution, had come. It was time to destroy, to sacrifice all in an effort to make the uncaring machinations end. Savio passionately urged his fellow students:
There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, make you so sick at heart that you can’t take part! Put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon the apparatus—and you’ve got to make it stop! And you’ve got ot indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it—that unless you’re free the machine will be prevented from working at all!
It was not just the white college students who voiced a general frustration with American society and politics. Young Chicanas, Chicanos, Native-Americans, and African-Americans all voiced their anger over government failure to address the problems that affected them. In the decades since the Great Depression, Americans had turned to the government as the main institution to provide them protection from a wildly fluctuating economic system that they were almost all universally dependent upon but had no control over individually. The state, through mindfully managed macroeconomic planning and social programs, would provide regular workers and citizens a certain level of security. But as the decades wore on, it seemed that the promises of liberalism and the proposed economic solutions were not reaching minority communities.
Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are having real problems reaching out to groups that they will need to win election. Clinton is losing young voters, including young women. Sanders has not managed to appeal to many minority voters (although after sharp and intelligent criticisms, Ta-Nehisi Coates and Hector Luis Alamo will vote for Sanders and he significantly reduced Clinton’s lead with Latinos in the Nevada caucus). They have struggled to explain their lack of support among these populations, but it’s relatively easy.
Their political identities and primary lenses for viewing the world were forged in the midst of mid-20th century modernist certainty. That is, their key identities—class for Sanders, gender for Clinton—were formed during a moment in history when these constructs were seen in monolithic, whole, and certain terms. For socialists, and other leftists, class trumped race and all other identities were bourgeois mystification, fabrications made up by a capitalist elite to divide the working-class. Gender too was similar. Women were one in a global sisterhood of solidarity against male-based exploitation. In the students groups of the long decade of the ‘60s that proved formative for Sanders and Clinton, gender and class were primary, unquestionable truths—truths that would speak to power and bring it down.
But, the student groups of ‘60s and ‘70s were overwhelmingly white and middle-class. The universals that these explanatory monoliths were based in were flawed. People of color, and especially women of color, found the rigidity of the groups’ explanatory models limiting. There were already cracks in the facades of solidarity forming in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Clinton and Sanders have carried these limitations with them into their politics of a very different century with a very different economy.
As covered in part I, Latino conservatism is not an outlier or a historical aberration. Many of its features developed over the course of the early twentieth century and were, at first, fused to civil right goals. Civil rights social conservatism accepted the idea that racial and economic inequality was not the product of structural problems, but individual failings. For these middle-class mid-20th century Latinos, Anglos did not systematically exclude Latinos, nor did they make Latinos poor. Instead, Latinos kept themselves in poor economic conditions and in segregated neighborhoods because they refused to assimilate, learn English, become educated, and be industrious with their time and money. Groups like LULAC and the American GI Forum subscribed to these types of ideas for much of their histories.
The coming presidential election has brought Latinos into the spotlight. Primarily, Democratic presidential hopefuls have reached out to the community, hiring key immigration activists and political actors. Yet, it is the Republican Party that has brought forward two Latino presidential candidates, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio. But how did a party known most recently for its anti-immigrant stance produce the first two Latino presidential candidates? Many have wondered about how Latinos could be conservatives or if Latino conservatism is an oxymoron. United Farm Worker Union (UFW) co-founder Dolores Huerta even called them “sellouts,” a term with a long history associated with elected Latino officials. Luis Valdez, founder of Teatro Campesino, a Chicano theater troupe associated with the UFW, wrote a 1967 play called “Los Vendidos” aimed at Mexican-American appointees of Ronald Reagan, who was then governor of California.
More recently, the Republican autopsy after the 2012 elections pinpointed Latino voters as key to Republican electoral success, yet Republicans in general have only doubled-down on anti-immigrant and anti-Latino rhetoric. Citizen militias, 2nd Amendment activists, and Tea Party activists supported the rhetoric of politicians that targeted Latinos and immigrants as the source of American political and social decline. Almost all on the far right, and increasingly in the mainstream, believed that immigrants were destroying American culture. And yet, Rubio and Cruz came to the fore. Does this mark the beginning of a new era of Latino conservatism or is this an anomaly?
It is probably a little of both. Latino conservatism is not an aberration. It has a long history within the Latino community in the U.S. and it continues today. Interestingly, in many moments in history it has even intersected with civil rights activism. It is important to note, that there are many types of conservatism and not all of them have strong traditions in the Latino community.