The Politics of Scapegoating Latinos and Other Racialized Minorities

The pundits’ mantra for the 2010 mid-term elections is that American voters are angry as hell and they’re intent on taking out their anger on those in power — and for most writers this means the Democrats who control the White House and Congress. Since they are perceived as a core part of the Democratic Party’s coalition, this party-in-power-about-to-take-its-lumps presumably includes the country’s racialized minorities, especially Blacks and Latinos.

Catching this current, Gregory Rodriguez in his August 2, 2010 Los Angeles Times column predicts that “white racial anxiety, not immigration, will be the most significant and potentially dangerous socio-demographic trend of the coming decade.” He, therefore, advises President Obama to seize his “Nixon moment” and offer up Affirmative Action to slake the dragon’s thirst for blood. Rodriguez thinks that this sacrifice is necessary “to avoid a destructive white backlash.”

On the same day, the lead front-page Los Angeles Times article described the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision as a rush by business (led by the Chamber of Commerce) and conservative political activists (led by Karl Rove’s American Crossroads) to mount the most expensive mid-term campaign in U.S. history to return power to those who will do their bidding more consistently and faithfully. Also on the same day, Paul Krugman’s New York Times column decried the trending of the country’s top leaders toward “normalizing” double-digit unemployment rates as a “structural” necessity of the new U.S. economy.

Are these three stories related? I think so.

This recession is different; it is not like previous recessions that led to relatively quick recoveries and we are likely to face long-term unemployment at levels not previously seen. Meanwhile, the recession has led state and local governments drowning in red ink to decimate their public sectors, including large-scale cuts in public workforces and benefits, with dire consequences for the public. Neither Congressional leaders nor the White House even discuss the possibility of raising the level of fiscal support to the public sector necessary to halt the blood-letting. Instead, national leaders wring their hands about the growing deficit and seriously entertain the possibility of restructuring the social security system toward greater privatization.

In this context, there are good reasons for all Americans to be feeling high levels of individual anxiety, and it is not surprising that the anxiety is translated into political anger. Our jobs are increasingly insecure, and the destruction of private-sector pensions and benefits has led not to a fight for their recovery but instead to a concerted attack on public sector pensions and benefits. In this environment, it is not surprising that the public is casting about for someone to blame. And in a country with our history of racial bigotry, violence, and oppression, Latino immigrants and the beneficiaries of Affirmative Action programs make ready-made targets for politicians (such as Senator James Webb, among Democrats) and other political opportunists seeking scapegoats on whose backs to improve their positions.

The campaign to target immigrants and racialized minorities should not be understood as a result of Barack Obama’s becoming the country’s first “non-White” president. This campaign should be understood as part of a large-scale effort by corporations and conservatives to further destroy the country’s public sector, aiming to throw all Americans into the loving arms of “the market” without public sector supports. Latinos and Blacks have been among the groups hardest-hit by the recession, and the further destruction of the public sector means that those in the least advantaged positions in American society will find it harder than ever before to climb a “ladder” to success that is missing more than a few of its previous rungs.

Rather than tossing a small chunk of “meat” such as Affirmative Action to the dragon (and can anyone truly believe that this would slake its thirst for blood?), President Obama should be encouraged to step up his campaign (already begun) to show the American people how the corporations, a conservative-dominated Supreme Court and the right-wing mind-fogging machines of the media are undermining public understanding of our true situation. And the rest of us should use our considerable verbal and intellectual skills to help the public better understand from whence their anxiety comes. A concerted campaign to improve public understanding of the anxiety-producing, insecurity-magnifying consequences of an unfettered market would yield better results for everyone than the jettisoning of Affirmative Action.

Ron Schmidt, Sr., is professor of political science at California State University, Long Beach. He is the author of Language Policy and Identity Politics in the United States (Temple University Press, 2000), lead co-author of Newcomers, Outsiders, and Insiders: Immigrants and American Racial Politics in the Early Twenty-first Century (University of Michigan Press, 2010), and author of numerous journal articles and book chapters. He may be reached at Read other articles by Ron.

5 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. sjw said on August 5th, 2010 at 4:24pm #

    Thank you for this insightful article. This is not the first time that Affirmative Action has been the convenient scapegoat for the right wing seeking a wedge issue in an economic downturn. California’s Proposition 209, which banned affirmative action in the 1990s, is only one of several efforts to target civil rights programs that promote equal opportunity in employment, higher education and contracting. Proposition 209 was followed by similar initiatives in Washington State and Michigan, and litigation in numerous states leading to the Grutter v. Bollinger decision in 2003. The irony, of course, is that the group that has benefited most from affirmative action is white women who are never viewed as part of the protected class.

    This most recent onslaught is bolder and more laced with unveiled racial language. “White anxiety” is openly used to jettison programs designed to compensate for centuries of discrimination without a scintilla of evidence that such actions are necessary. Affirmative action, in their view, must be replaced with programs benefiting poor whites. I cannot understand why this is a zero sum game and why socio-economic status has to replace and not complement race and gender-based programs. The only conclusion I can reach is that there are more sinister motives afoot. I firmly believe, however, that it will not be that easy to remove these programs without an equal and opposite reaction and the courts may be where these battles will ultimately be fought. A return to the status quo pre 1964 will not be acceptable.

  2. Deadbeat said on August 6th, 2010 at 5:51am #

    sjw writes …

    The irony, of course, is that the group that has benefited most from affirmative action is white women who are never viewed as part of the protected class…

    “White anxiety” is openly used to jettison programs designed to compensate for centuries of discrimination without a scintilla of evidence that such actions are necessary.Affirmative action, in their view, must be replaced with programs benefiting poor whites. I cannot understand why this is a zero sum game and why socio-economic status has to replace and not complement race and gender-based programs

    When examining Affirmative Action the question that needs to come to mind is why the Republican Richard Nixon put it in place. It certainly wasn’t done as a remedy to racial discrimination. It was done to weaken the radicalism that was taking place in the Black Community at the time.

    The weakness came from skimming the upwardly mobile Blacks from the Black community and putting them into accepting Capitalism. At best it made Liberals out of a that group. This is reflected today in the weaken condition of Black Politics and help the rise of Barack Obama.

    The point is that Affirmative Action is flawed and we should not just look at benefits of Affirmative Action we should also examine its consequences. Affirmative Action is a Liberal remedy to what really requires RADICAL solutions.

    As you sjw notes [professional] white women are the beneficiaries of Affirmative Action and when Affirmative Action was under attacked feminists remained relatively silent so once again Blacks see the betrayal by the Liberal/Left. And anyone following the Chomsky discussion can see why Blacks would distrust a badly corrupted Left.

    IMO the best Affirmative Action program is a struggle to replace the system of Capitalism. Then there won’t be a need to fight over the scraps that are mislabeled as “jobs”.

  3. Loucleve said on August 6th, 2010 at 5:23pm #

    Mr. Schmidt:

    Excuse me sir, but I believe that of western democracies, the USA has the highest percentage of public to private workers on the planet. Care to comment on that? Especially since we know that public sector workers are less efficient than private sector workers (see below).

    What really amazed me was when government recently took over healthcare – the same people that cannot even run a postal service properly! If they cannot run a post office – nothing more than envelopes and packages and stamps – how the heck do they expect to run healthcare? The simple fact is, government jobs afford little accountability – believe me, my brother works for the federal government, and the stories of waste and corruption are legendary – I mean truly sickening, probably enough wasted to feed all those hungry kids out there. And the Lefts answer is, of course, bigger government!.

    I don’t expect a response, as your position on the public sector (not AA, which I do not address) – rather succinctly eviscerated above, I believe – is indefensible.

    Have a nice day!


  4. Loucleve said on August 6th, 2010 at 5:29pm #

    Replace Capitalism, and you have no accountability whatsoever. Look to Eastern Europe and China in particular – not Russia – to see what Capitalism has done to improve standards of living. (China is a command economy, not pure socialism.) For everyone not too lazy to get off there butts and work, that is, as no one just hands you anything under Capitalism as in the social utopia envisioned in the last sentence of the article. Something most University Professors – our distinguished author – have never experienced an honest days worth of. As they say, if you cannot do, teach.

  5. Loucleve said on August 6th, 2010 at 6:23pm #

    Please excuse my typo on “there”, which should be their. Also, “accountability” is likely not the best term – incentive seems more fitting.