Monday, July 28, 2008 | 2 a.m.
When Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton gained support from Hispanic voters by a 2-to-1 ratio over Barack Obama in Las Vegas and elsewhere during primary season this year, many wondered aloud in the media if there were some sort of problem between the nation’s two largest minority groups.
Pundits wondered whether Hispanics were unwilling to support a black candidate.
Only months later, the Pew Hispanic Center’s poll, released Thursday, is the latest of several that overwhelmingly show the same pattern: Hispanics now favor Obama over Republican candidate John McCain by similar margins.
Many people are getting a chance to say, “I told you so.”
One of the lessons from this, they say, is that everyone needs to beware of generalizing about Hispanics, an exceedingly diverse population ranging from Caribbean islanders, many of whom are black and mixed-race, to those who come from Bolivia, a nation mostly inhabited by native peoples.
They also say this all underscores that reports of Hispanic prejudice against U.S. blacks, or conflict between the two groups, were greatly exaggerated.
“Mainstream media was willing to talk about this when they could sensationalize a conflict,” says Andres Ramirez, vice president of Hispanic programs at NDN, a Washington-based think tank and advocacy organization. “Now that there isn’t one, no one’s mentioning the issue.”
Ramirez, who has a home in North Las Vegas and ran for mayor of that city in 2005, said that at the root of this is “an overwhelming lack of information and understanding about Latinos.”
When tongues wagged about a supposed divide between the two minority groups, there weren’t much data reporters and analysts could use to evaluate the claim. Gallup released a poll only recently on the “perceived quality of relations between blacks and Hispanics in the United States.” Results: Non-Hispanic whites were evenly divided on whether the relations were “good” or “bad,” while 60 percent of Hispanics and 67 percent of non-Hispanic blacks saw the relations as “good.”
This poll, Ramirez says, is telling: Those outside looking in — whites — have a dimmer view of relations between Hispanics and blacks than do the groups themselves.
Pilar Weiss, political director of the Culinary Union, whose membership of 60,000 is about 45 percent Hispanic, says she’s glad the record is being set straight on the supposed connections among race, ethnicity and voter preference. The issue is important because Hispanics are now 12 percent of active registered voters in Clark County — about 84,000, according to the Clark County Election Department — and fast-growing as a group here and nationwide.
Weiss’ union officially endorsed Obama in January’s caucus, but many members, including Hispanics, went with Clinton.
Aha, said the commentators, it’s a black-brown thing.
“That was part of the dynamics of the primaries,” Weiss says. “People were looking for division and controversy.”
She notes that Culinary members, most of whom work on the Strip, are from dozens of countries. Some are black Hispanics, so how are they pigeonholed?
“We made it clear we were against generalizing, trying to imply Latinos would vote a certain way,” Weiss says.
Talking to Hispanic members now, she says, there’s a common theme: “People are focused on how bad things are now ... and they’re trying to vote for who they think will make their lives better.”
Ramirez says many Hispanic voters may put jobs and schools at the top of their what’s-important lists, but immigration is a litmus test issue of sorts, and they associate Republicans with hostility toward immigrants, as seen in workplace raids and the lack of change to immigration laws by Congress.
So Hispanic voters, he says, “won’t even consider your position on issues like education and the economy if they feel you’re not right on immigration.” Then there’s the identification they feel with Obama and his family background, with its mixture of races and origins.
Regardless of whom Hispanics wind up supporting come November, Harley Shaiken, chairman of the Center for Latin American Studies at the University of California Berkeley, says there’s clearly a cautionary tale in all this.
“Tension is nothing new between races and ethnicities in this country,” he says. “But it can be overstated ... racial and ethnic relations are very complex to interpret. Plausible and correct are two different things.”