Las Vegas, Nevada.
The chairs in the Concorde Ballroom of the Paris Casino were arranged as if for a wedding, but were more a prelude to an ugly divorce.
On one side of the at-large caucus room were supporters of Senator Hillary Clinton, led by an organizer for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), overwhelmingly Mexican-American.
On the other side of the aisle were supporters of Senator Barack Obama, led by a shop steward for the Culinary Workers Local 226, overwhelmingly African-American.
Both groups were made up predominantly of women. They shouted at each other, booed, hissed and hurled thumbs down in open, sneering contempt for the opposition. The hostility toward their sister workers on each side had more to do with each other than with the candidates they supported.
Capitalism and its politicians have long played divide-and-conquer to divide immigrants from other economically suppressed demographic groups. A generation or two ago, Irish, Italians and Jews were districted by those in power into the same Congressional, legislative and city council districts to compete for the same scraps of political representation while White Anglo-Saxon Protestants took the rest of the pie. The same has occurred in recent years to shoehorn blacks and Latinos–the two most solid Democratic Party voting demographic groups – into increasing conflict.
During last June’s debate over the federal Immigration Reform Bill, the overtly racist Minutemen organization took time off from patrolling the border vigilante style to hold a small march in Los Angeles against reform. They recruited a sole black minister who brought along half-a-dozen men from his congregation for an anti-immigrant rally that had no more than two-dozen participants. This, justifiably, provoked anger among Mexican-Americans and others in LA, and thousands marched in counter-demonstration. Truth is, there were far more African-Americans marching with the pro-immigrant group than that stood with the Minutemen, and that fact saved the situation from becoming uglier.
As census trends explode to bring, just two or so decades from now, the Caucasian population of the United States into minority status, entire industries have been launched to prevent a majority alliance from forming along class-solidarity lines. There are book contracts aplenty waiting for divisive pundits like Earl Ofari Hutchison, author of The Emerging Black GOP Majority (2006) and Latino Challenge to Black America (2007) and who dedicated much of 2007 and, now, 2008 to bashing Obama over on The Huffington Post. Black-Latino tensions bubble up from high school brawls in Los Angeles to City Council antics in Buffalo, and of course in the prison system where gangs choose up sides so often along ethnic and racial lines.
But now it’s exploded out into the open in the Democratic presidential nomination battle, with the Clinton campaign leading the charge. In recent weeks, efforts by Clinton surrogates to wage racial politics against Obama were viewed by reporters as efforts to sway white voters away from Obama: a national Clinton co-chair implied that Obama had a drug-dealing past, a former US senator repeated disproved Islamic smears, and most recently a billionaire black entertainment mogul introduced Clinton by resurrecting the drug canard. All three then staged public “apologies.” But it’s the words of Bill and Hillary Clinton that have sent the signals from above, from the latter’s angry uncle acts in New Hampshire and Nevada and his defense of a voter suppression lawsuit there, to the former’s exaltation of LBJ as the real MLK, the strategy has been to bait Obama supporters into respond in kind. Then they claim to be “victims” of false accusations of racism.
Remarkably, the race-baiting has had little effect on those white voters that would be expected to bite, particularly those in rural areas–considered by white urban and suburban liberals to be the racist ones–who in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada delivered bigger percentages for Obama than urban and suburban voters. But perhaps the white folk were never the intended target of such divisive politics. No, it led, instead, to the afro-hispano-divide on Saturday in Las Vegas, one that could cause lasting harm to all progressive efforts–electoral or not–in the near future of the United States of America.
The Clinton White House vs. Mexican-Americans
When president from 1989 to 2001, George H. W. Bush tried to gain approval for a North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with Mexico and Canada, just as Ronald Reagan tried before him, he couldn’t convince a Democratic Congress to go along. That magic trick required the Democratic regime of Bill Clinton–backed by a multi-million dollar corporate lobbying campaign, off which many Clinton ’92 campaign staffers made good money pressuring fellow Democrats–who rammed NAFTA through.
NAFTA took effect in 1994, soon devastated the Mexican family farmer, many of whom fled across the US border while many more were displaced into Mexican cities and border states to work in post-NAFTA sweatshops. That, in turn, sparked a marked increase in undocumented workers in the US, who are now on the receiving end of the same repressive policies and media-fed demonization that were perfected against African-Americans and now utilized, likewise, against Hispanic-Americans.
In 1993, when President Bill Clinton took office, there were 80,815 men and women in federal prisons. By the end of his two terms, in December of 2000, there were 125,692: an increase of 55 percent over eight years, according to the US Department of Justice.
Federal drug enforcement counted for more than half of the 45,000-strong increase in federal prisons, leaving a total of 63,898 drug war prisoners, more than half of the federal prison population, at the end of Clinton’s term. That was the consequence of mandatory minimum sentences, which the Clinton administration, and particularly Attorney General Janet Reno, pledged to reform in January 1993, but quickly abandoned during those eight years in power.
The Center on Juvenile Justice concluded at the end of the Clinton years, “When William Jefferson Clinton took office in 1993, he was embraced by some as a moderate change from the previous twelve years of tough on crime Republican administrations. Now, eight years later, the latest criminal justice statistics show that it was actually Democratic President Bill Clinton who implemented arguably the most punitive platform on crime in the last two decades. In fact, ‘tough on crime’ policies passed during the Clinton Administration’s tenure resulted in the largest increases in federal and state prison inmates of any president in American history.”
The Clinton administration’s criminalization of the economically poor fell heaviest upon Hispanic-Americans. By 1997, more than halfway through the Clinton White House years, 27 percent of federal inmates were Hispanic (compared to 17 percent of state level inmates). By 2000, 43 percent of all federal drug war prisoners were Hispanic, the most likely group to be first-time offenders, and the least likely to have committed a violent crime. (If anything, these numbers undercount the real impact, since most Hispanic inmates are classified by the prison system as “white.”)
Contrary to what CNN’s Lou Dobbs says, these Hispanic prisoners are not primarily “illegal immigrants.” US born Hispanic men are seven times as likely to end up in prison than foreign-born Hispanic men.
And during Bill Clinton’s presidency, the White House made no effort to reform immigration laws or set a path to citizenship for the millions of new immigrants streaming across the border as a result of NAFTA. President George W. Bush has been more progressive on the immigration issue than Clinton ever was.
But after winning the New Hampshire primary, Senator Hillary Clinton went to Nevada and made a noisy public play for Latino voters. Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico, the Mexican-American in the presidential contest, obliged her by dropping out of the race and clearing the path for Clinton. She walked through a predominantly Hispanic North Las Vegas neighborhood as her first post-New Hampshire media appearance, and noshed guacamole and chips at the Lindo Michoacan restaurant. During that session, with the TV cameras running, a man shouted, “my wife is illegal.” (What man, if his wife is truly in the country without permission, would advertise that fact on national television? The Clinton campaign had been caught earlier in the campaign planting questions, and this incident carried the same media-manipulating smell.) Clinton’s response – “No woman is illegal!” – caused many to forget her doubletalk at a debate last October about drivers licenses for undocumented immigrants when she took both sides of the issue. Indeed, at Saturday’s caucus, some of her supporters gushed to reporters that “Hillary supports amnesty” for immigrants.
That blatant level of pandering from the team that had, during eight years in power, done so much damage to Mexican-Americans and their country of ancestry both, has to be viewed now in the context of the race-baiting tactics that dominated the Democratic primaries in early 2008. According to the entrance poll of Nevada caucus-goers, 64 percent of Hispanic voters favored Clinton to just 25 percent for Obama, while 83 percent of African-Americans backed Obama to only 16 percent for Clinton. If those percentages hold in the February 5 California primary (and in contests that same day in Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado, also with large numbers of Mexican-American voters), Clinton may soon be on the road to the Democratic nomination.
Eight Days to Disarm a Time Bomb
The day after his narrow defeat in Nevada (while, due to white rural voters in the northern Nevada 2nd Congressional District, Obama edged out Clinton, 13 to 12, for Democratic National Convention delegates), Obama went to the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia, and seemed to acknowledge that he has work to do to reverse, or at least dampen, the trend of Latino voters for Clinton.
From the pulpit where Martin Luther King once preached, he said to the predominantly black congregation:
“if we are honest with ourselves, we must admit that none of our hands are entirely clean. If we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll acknowledge that our own community has not always been true to King’s vision of a beloved community.
“We have scorned our gay brothers and sisters instead of embracing them. The scourge of anti-Semitism has, at times, revealed itself in our community. For too long, some of us have seen immigrants as competitors for jobs instead of companions in the fight for opportunity.”
The Obama camp certainly recognizes the problem, but so far hasn’t taken that message to the ground level, to the homes and neighborhoods and restaurants, and, yes, in front of television cameras, to break bread together with Mexican-Americans and make his case more forcefully.
Obama–not Clinton–was a co-sponsor of the Immigrant Reform Bill that was the central issue of 2007 for the Latino population. He has to make that case and do so fast or the black-Latino rift that the Clintons have so cynically encouraged could become the story of the remaining Democratic primaries, leading to such acrimony that one group, or the other, stays home in November.
In addition to those factors, Obama needs to shine an eviscerating light upon the actual record of the first Clinton administration and the brutality of its increased prosecution of Hispanics for non-violent federal drug crimes. According to a 2003 survey by Fairbanks, Maslin, Maulin & Associates for the Drug Policy Alliance, a wide majority of Latinos in California oppose prison terms for drug offenders.
Short of a rumored, pending–but as of yet unconfirmed–Obama endorsement by Senator Ted Kennedy, the most visible sponsor of the Immigration Reform Bill and highly respected by many Latino voters, Obama is going to have to confront the black-Latino rift seen in Nevada head-on if he has hope of gaining the nomination.
The terrible Clinton legacy of US government mistreatment of Mexican-Americans–including the majority that are legal citizens–provides the constitutional law professor and civil rights lawyer from Illinois the opening to do so. But the time bomb of black-Latino division is ticking and could explode, if not disarmed in the next week, as soon as Tsunami Tuesday rolls in on February 5.
Parts of this story were originally published in The Field–http://ruralvotes.com/thefield – where AL GIORDANO has been writing about the presidential campaign.
AL GIORDANO, the founder of Narco News, has lived in and reported from Latin America for the past decade. His opinions expressed in this column do not reflect those of Narco News nor of The Fund for Authentic Journalism, which supports his work. Al encourages commentary, critique, additional analysis and news tips for his continued coverage of the US presidential campaign to be sent to his email address: firstname.lastname@example.org.