Friday, September 7, 2012

Castro's Post-Racial Politics | Casey's Last Word

Mayor Julian Castro had his moment in the sun this week and I thought he did a very good job with it.

But while being in the spotlight, he was also in the shadow of Barack Obama, whose 2004 keynote address to the Democratic Convention set an unrealistic standard:

It was absurd for supposedly serious journalists to raise the possibility that this speech could lead to Castro’s becoming the first Latino president.

But on one count, the comparison between the two speeches was appropriate.

Both were delivered by very smart, highly-educated (both Harvard Law grads) young men from minority groups. And both were cited as being “post-racial” politicians.

NPR reporter Audie Cornish quizzed Castro on “the idea of post-racial” politics for a piece running the day of Castro’s speech. In a way it was more personal for Castro than for Obama.

Unlike Obama’s mother, who was white, the mayor’s mother, Rosie Castro, was heavily involved in ethnically-based politics.

She ran unsuccessfully in 1971 for San Antonio’s City Council, a non-partisan position, as a member of La Raza Unida.

The political party, and Rosie Castro herself, produced some radical rhetoric in the late 1960s and 1970s. 

But they won few electoral victories, mostly in Zavala and LaSalle counties.

There is, of course, no “Raza” in Castro’s rhetoric. But he does not apologize for his mother.

Instead he is grateful to her, seeing himself and Obama, as he told NPR, as:

“the beneficiaries of the civil rights movement, and able to be comfortable in a corporate boardroom or in a legislative chamber or out in a neighborhood and see the glass as half-full.”

He also said:

“we’re in a different America today than my mother and my grandmother grew up in. And so, of course, since the circumstances have changed, the politics are different.”

The militant Raza Unida was formed by people who had been excluded from the table of Texas politics.

That wasn’t Julian’s experience. He was accepted by Stanford and Harvard universities, then employed by the powerful law firm of Akin Gump as he won his first race for City Council.

But he was also part of a San Antonio political culture that has been, at least on the surface, post-racial for more than three decades.

In 1977 I wrote a magazine cover story on Henry Cisneros, then a young city councilman preparing to run for mayor.

In preparation I spent several weeks following him around. He agreed to ground rules that nothing was off the record.

At one point I asked if he or his family had ever suffered from prejudice.

“Can we go off the record?” he asked. I said no. He declined to answer the question.

Cisneros was a post-racial politician, but for the practical political reason that he knew he wasn’t in a post-racial world.

He needed a substantial portion of the Anglo vote in order to win, and he knew that any expression of ethnic grievance – no matter how well grounded – would cost him votes.

It would also cost him the backing of business leaders, most of whom were Anglo, without whose support he could not be a successful mayor.

That dynamic hasn’t changed. San Antonio’s Hispanic politicians, and the powerful, heavily Hispanic community organization Citizens Organized for Public Services, have argued for programs and expenditures based on the notion that they were good investments, not that they would make up for past discrimination.

Political rhetoric remains post-racial not because racial issues are gone, though great strides have been made.

The rhetoric is post-racial mostly because politicians don’t want to make the voters they need uncomfortable.

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