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CONVENTION 2000 / THE DEMOCRATIC CONVENTION

Diversity Issues Go Beyond Face Time

Politics of identity form a central theme, an indication of the complexities outside the conventions' walls.

August 15, 2000|LYNELL GEORGE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Lily Chen, a Chinese-born social worker from Glendale, has been among the sea of diverse faces on Democratic convention floors for two decades. But never as much as now, she says, has the issue of diversity been so important yet so misunderstood.

"Diversity is not just a combination of colors for show," says Chen. "The bottom line is we are going to have to deliver, and the Democrats have to try harder."

Images of an "inclusive" America are everywhere this summer, from the Republican Party's proceedings to Vice President Al Gore's choice of Orthodox Jew Joseph I. Lieberman as his running mate (not to mention Pat Buchanan's naming of a conservative black woman, Ezola Foster, to the Reform Party ticket). Diversity has not just taken political center stage but also has become an odd motif during the current election season.

Although the Republicans' liberal use of gospel choirs and Latino recording stars was viewed in certain circles as ham-fisted, some Democrats on the floor at Staples Center reluctantly welcome their opponents' focus on issues of race, ethnicity, gender, disabilities and sexual orientation.

"It's healthy," said Chen, who served as an education advisor in the Carter administration. "The Republicans realize that on some level that they can't do it the old way."

In truth, the staged conventions are imperfect models for gauging the way different groups are getting along in a dynamic society.

Votes No Longer Taken for Granted

What gets lost while politicians and their advisors worry about sight lines and getting one-of-every-kind shots on TV is that America's complex identity politics remain clumsily addressed beyond convention walls.

Parties play up diversity issues, sometimes crassly, sometimes movingly, for practical reasons.

The Democratic Party has traditionally invited the poor and disenfranchised into its tent and, some critics say, grown complacent along the way. The Republican Party, playing up George W. Bush's "compassionate conservatism," is seeking to shed its harsh image among moderate suburban white voters who may well decide the election.

"From the 1960s forward, both parties have taken minorities for granted," said Philip J. Ethington, a USC associate professor of history. "The GOP wrote them off because they thought they would just vote Democrat. And the Democrats took them for granted because they always thought they would be there."

Inclusion's extreme close-up reflects demographic reality, said Harry Pachon, president of the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute at Pitzer College in Claremont.

"Before, we could pay lip service to diversity. But now in the case of the Latino community, for example, with over 5 1/2 million voters to go to the polls this November . . . , inclusivity makes sense from the political marketing perspective."

Even so, in Philadelphia this month, 83% of the Republican Party delegates were white and only 8.3% identified themselves as black, Latino or Asian/Pacific Islander.

For the Democrats, each state is asked to balance its delegation based on criteria including race and sexual orientation. This year, Democratic convention-goers are 66% white, 20% black, 10% Latino and 3% Asian. The only quota strictly enforced is that women must make up 50% of the delegates.

A good number of the Democrats, however, say that the diversity debate must move beyond external differences to the issues that impact all their lives, from public education to health care.

In a perfect scenario, said Elijah Lopez of Mira Loma, a delegate for Bill Bradley, diversity "is not just a matter of race and ethnicity. It's diversity of opinions and attitudes."

Still, Lopez feels frustrated. His experiences as a member of the progressive caucus have shown him that the party's platform does not reflect all views.

"Basically we're just rubber-stamping something," he said. "Where's the debate like the old days? Having a little argument, some infighting, works to the benefit of the party."

Many who can be counted among those check-the-box minority populations have become all too familiar with halfhearted gestures.

Inviting true debate, said five-time delegate Alice Huffman, has become more difficult.

"I've watched how conventions are becoming more of a play to the media," said Huffman, vice chair of the Democratic National Committee Black Caucus.

But she is more hopeful than Lopez. From her experience, diverse voices can be heard. "The truth of the matter is that we have a voice in the platform."

Symbols Send Important Signals

Moreover, many delegates say that, while the party must move beyond symbolism, the diversity on the convention floor sends an important signal to those who cast ballots.

"How are people going to vote if they don't see people who look like them?" said Barbara Kerr, a teacher from Riverside.

Gay rights activist Jean O'Leary of North Hollywood remembers when was she was the lone "out" voice on the floor 20 years ago.

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