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In Them vs. Us, Who's Us?

April 11, 1999|Gregory Rodriguez | Gregory Rodriguez, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a research scholar at the Pepperdine Institute for Public Policy and a fellow at the New America Foundation

The Greek physician Hippocrates wrote that Scythians, the nomadic people whom the Greeks considered the "barbarians" of their time, all looked alike. The Greeks, by contrast, were heterogenous in stature and shape.

Hippocrates certainly wasn't the first person to caricaturize and homogenize other peoples. While adjectives and epithets have varied, there is a constant in all such characterizations: The "civilized" pride themselves on their diversity; the "barbarians" are invariably uniform.

Similar judgments are made today and have crept into coverage of this year's City Council races. The media routinely refer to black, Latino and Asian "communities," but seldom, if ever, to a "white community." One understandable reason for sorting millions of nonwhite Americans into various ethnic communities is a need to make these groups more intelligible, but the result often creates awkward portrayals. Last week, a Los Angeles TV news anchor reported that "the Chinese American community" hosted a banquet for visiting Chinese Prime Minister Zhu Rongji. There are 400,000 Chinese Americans in Southern California. What about those Chinese Americans who protested Zhu's arrival? Are they members of the Chinese American community?

To ask such questions is to highlight the habit of viewing nonwhite groups as centralized organizations rather than as collections of individuals with diverse opinions and outlooks. Typing ethnic groups not only distorts our understanding of them, it also diminishes the importance of individual voters and precinct-level political activity. Obsession with the idea of minority unity, furthermore, undermines the goal of cultivating more political discussion to bring about greater civic involvement.

When writing about the politics of nonwhites, journalists often pick up the phone and ask a minority "spokesperson" or "leader" what his or her people think about any given issue. The same journalist would never call, say, Gov. Gray Davis to ask him what white people think about Social Security. The assumption is that Anglos live as individuals, while minorities are mere extensions of a collective mentality.

In addition to oversimplifying complex populations, identifying nonwhites as cohesive communities, rather than as individuals, can promote racist and ethnocentric ideologies. Ethnocentric ideologues or activists eagerly welcome opportunities to speak for a single-minded, 30-million-strong "Latino community." When African American activists tell a black conservative that he is not black enough, they are declaring there is only one true way to think or act as an African American. Conversely, the very idea of homogenous minorities is indispensable to racists who want to paint ethnic groups with broad brush strokes.

Notions of sameness among nonwhite groups facilitate brokerage politics, in which elite "race leaders" pursue the purportedly unified interests of their people as if they were corporate CEOs. This type of politics is "ultimately a form of high-level negotiation," contends New School for Social Research political scientist Adolph L. Reed Jr. The black leader gets to sit down with the Latino leader who gets to sit down with the government representative.

But brokerage politics' preoccupation with ethnic chieftains marginalizes the minorities themselves. Average citizens either don't have a voice or apparently aren't worth sounding out. For example, in coverage of the race to succeed Councilman Richard Alatorre, in the 14th Councilmanic District, the endorsements of "prominent ethnic leaders" have played a starring role. Sure, the sheer number of candidates in that race--14--makes the endorsement angle appealing. But in the contest in the heavily black 10th District, there are far fewer contenders, yet endorsements also are a big part of that story, including that of former Mayor Tom Bradley.

In the 7th District race to succeed Richard Alarcon, the media have even resurrected the ancient rivalry between Alatorre and L.A. County Supervisor Gloria Molina to explain their opposing endorsements. Because of the assumption that all Latinos are of like mind, it is considered "news" when two Latino officials don't get along. By contrast, Anglo officials are expected to disagree with each other, and in campaigns involving Anglo candidates, endorsements regularly take a back-seat to contribution totals.

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