THE SLUGFEST between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, in which only the most painstaking analyst can discern any disagreement over policy, highlights the ancient yet growing importance of ethnic identity in politics.
The race didn't start out that way. The 2007 polls showed that blacks favored Senator Clinton, the wife of "America's first black president," over Senator Obama, the preppie from paradise. Yet when the crunch came, four-fifths of black Democratic primary voters rallied to the yuppie technocrat's banner.
Shaken by the defection of an ethnicity Hillary had assumed was hereditarily hers, the Clinton campaign then pointed to the Latino vote as its "firewall." And in the important California primary, Hispanics did vote 67 percent to 32 percent for the former first lady. Elsewhere, however, the vaunted Hispanic bloc didn't quite live up to expectations. Hillary responded to her Super Tuesday woes by firing her Hispanic campaign manager, Patti Solis Doyle, and replacing her with Maggie Williams, who is black. As I write, Mrs. Clinton is left hoping that Latinos will bail her out in the upcoming Texas primary.
The multiracialization of American politics has barely begun. When it comes to identity politics, numbers count. And a new population projection from the Pew Research Center estimates that Hispanics will grow from 42 million in 2005 to a jaw-dropping 128 million in 2050. Meanwhile, African Americans will increase from 38 million to 57 million. (Caucasians will barely creep over the 200 million mark, presumably on the strength of Middle Eastern immigration.)
The relationship between blacks and Latinos will become increasingly central to American life, but it's a murky phenomenon, poorly understood by the white-dominated press.
Despite the hype, the Latino electorate has been growing much less impressively than the Latino population. Although Hispanics comprise about 15 percent of the residents of this country, they only cast 5.8 percent of the votes in the 2006 midterm elections, according to the Pew Hispanic Center's crunching of the raw data from the Census Bureau's big biennial voting survey. That was up from 5.3 percent in 2002--steady growth but hardly the political tsunami that we've been told about over and over. In contrast, blacks accounted for 10.3 percent of the vote, 77 percent more than Hispanics.
Thus it's far better, especially in the Democratic primaries, to get four-fifths of the black vote, as Obama does, than two-thirds of the Hispanic vote, as Mrs. Clinton does. Although Clinton has typically beaten Obama among whites, Obama does well enough that his large margin among black Democrats keeps him competitive. (Clinton's secret weapon has been Asians, who sided with her 71-25 percent in California.)
One reason the black-Hispanic relationship is poorly understood is that class intersects with ethnicity in complex ways. At the bottom of society, among prison and street gangs, race rules. In the Los Angeles County jail, which is 60 percent Hispanic and 30 percent black, the two groups fought murderous battles in 2006. Last October, federal prosecutors accused the Florencia 13 street gang of trying to ethnically cleanse blacks from its unincorporated neighborhood in LA County. (The political impact of this violence shouldn't be exaggerated, though. The respectable folk who do most of the voting don't approve of gangbangers feuding.)
In poorer neighborhoods, black residents feel uneasy about men speaking Spanish around them. Not being able to understand what is being said robs them of their street smarts. Are the two men next to you at the bus stop talking in Spanish about soccer or are they plotting to mug you? Who knows?
At the top of the power structure, in the House of Representatives and state legislatures, blacks and Latinos get along quite well, united by party (92 percent of elected Hispanics are Democrats) and a mutual desire to keep the affirmative action gravy train chugging along. …