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Latino Pols Face a Double Standard

When did you last hear of a case of 'white sleaze'?

November 24, 2002|Gregory Rodriguez | Gregory Rodriguez, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation.

When James K. Hahn's mayoral campaign aired a racially loaded TV ad featuring the image of a crack cocaine pipe, attacking rival Antonio Villaraigosa, there was no public uproar over the sorry state of "white politics." When Gray Davis and Bill Simon were mired in an issueless negative campaign for governor, nobody expected fellow "white leaders" to call a summit meeting and denounce their uninspired tactics. Yet, when Ricardo Torres II, on behalf of his friend, Councilman Nick Pacheco, distributed two sleazy fliers attacking Villaraigosa, Pacheco's chief rival in Los Angeles' 14th Council District, Latino officials rushed to denounce the tactics. Many even felt compelled to forswear the use of negative campaigning in future political races. The patronizing moral outrage of the media and many non-Latinos amounted to a collective gasp at the newest antics of "those darn Latinos."

The media have long tended to treat nonwhites as if they live in a different country from white Americans. Journalists routinely write about monolithic ethnic and racial "communities" with their own leaders, agendas and codes of ethics. But this vision of America as a confederation of mutually exclusive "communities" is not only wrongheaded, it obscures the fact that we all share a common civic and political culture. Mexican American politicians neither invented nor perfected the art of political sleaze.

The criticism heaped on Hahn for his crack-pipe ad did not generalize to whites because they are portrayed as thinking and acting as individuals. The media never describe them as living and working in the "white community." We don't expect whites to shoulder the burden of having to reprimand or keep "their people" in line. When a white politician disgraces himself in office, it reflects on him, not on his race.

The sin of a nonwhite political leader, in contrast, is treated as an extension of some minority mind-set. His disgrace becomes ethnic disgrace, and "responsible" leaders must discipline the perpetrator to defend ethnic honor.

This antiquated understanding of minority "leaders" stems in part from the civil rights era, when the African American elite was morally bound to speak for blacks who were denied the vote. But it's long past time that we acknowledge that contemporary black and Latino officials represent the districts that elected them, not their racial and ethnic groups.

Many Latino and black officials, to be sure, like to talk as if they do represent their minority groups. By doing so, they hope to broaden their influence and increase their moral authority. But it can't be much fun to be propped up by the media as an ethnic leader or icon. By some accounts, Villaraigosa, who generally ran an exemplary pan-ethnic campaign for mayor, was unduly burdened by the media's apparent need to place the adjective "Latino" before his candidacy. The heavy ethnic symbolism imposed upon him may have undercut his pan-ethnic appeal.

Ironically, it is Villaraigosa's iconic value that drew Torres' below-the-belt fire in the first place. Reports to the contrary, the hit pieces were not focused on white people or pochos, the term Mexicans sometimes use to demean Mexican Americans. The mailing accusing the former Assembly speaker of listening to his "white advisors," "speaking pocho Spanish" and selling out "our community" was crudely calculated to call into question Villaraigosa's ethnic credibility among newly naturalized immigrant voters in the district. The second, more disturbing flier, attacking Villaraigosa's personal life, aimed to tarnish his moral authority.

Neither the tactics nor the fliers' messages are new -- or, for that matter, noteworthy in U.S. politics. It is their crude and amateurish nature that makes them so shocking. "We're used to them being more insidious and subtle," says a City Hall insider. "If anything, these fliers offend our sense of professionalism. They're just not sportsmanlike."

In politics -- brown, black, white and striped -- ethnicity or race is often deployed, subtly or overtly, as a weapon to divide and conquer. "This is a very old story," says Jack Pitney Jr., a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College. "The personal attacks and the injection of race and ethnicity into the campaign ... are, unfortunately, classic parts of American politics."

Surrogates for Villaraigosa's mayoral campaign played the ethnic card when they publicly questioned the ethnic loyalties of Pacheco and Council President Alex Padilla after the two Latinos endorsed Hahn for mayor. The first Torres mailing similarly attempted to leverage ethnic distrust to undermine Villaraigosa. But this is not a "Latino thing."

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