If you haven’t yet read the insightful and beautiful essay “Fear of a Black President” by The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates you should do so immediately. If you read one thing about Barack Obama’s presidency, this should be it.
In the essay, Coates grapples with and dissects one of the central ironies of the Obama presidency: that the nation’s first black president actually almost never talks about race. Coates carefully documents that in the few instances where President Obama has discussed race, as in the aftermath of Trayvon Martin’s shooting, the reaction from many on the right was outrage.
Coates goes on to cite a quote about the 2008 campaign from a democratic pollster: “The thing is, a black man can’t be president in America, given the racial aversion and history that’s still out there… However, an extraordinary, gifted, and talented young man who happens to be black can be president.”
This quote stuck with me as I watched San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro vault himself to national prominence as the keynote speaker at the Democratic National Convention this week. As the gushing reviews flowed in I began to wonder what a Hispanic presidency would look like.
Much has been said about the fact that Julián Castro doesn’t speak Spanish, and how this may be a liability for him down the line. The thinking goes that if he doesn’t speak Spanish, he can’t be a Latino leader in the U.S. After reading Coates’ piece on Obama, I’m starting to think that Castro’s lack of Spanish is part of what makes him not a Latino politician, but a politician who happens to be Latino.
As a point of comparison, look at the politics of Castro’s mother Rosie. Rosie Castro was a hardcore grassroots social activist, working outside the political system as a member of La Raza Unida, a Chicano nationalist party. At an event organized by Univision, The National Journal, and ABC News, Julián was careful to distance himself from his mother’s activist past: “Her participation in the Chicano movement was fitting for that time… We’re proud of our heritage, but we’re also able to operate in the corporate boardroom or in the legislative chamber.“
He didn’t throw her under the bus, just as candidate Obama didn’t totally throw Reverend Wright under the bus in his landmark speech on race in Philadelphia. But they were both firm in distancing themselves from the social activists from the generation above them. In an interview with Maria Elena Salinas, Castro further drew the distinction:
“And even though I grew up and I didn't always like getting dragged to the meetings or the rallies or the speeches, I developed a very strong respect for participating in a democratic process.” Essentially, yes, I respect what she did, but don’t worry I’m not that scary Chicano Nationalist.
And what if he were president? Would he be able to use his Spanish (albeit limited) in any public setting? Coates talks about the concerted effort to essentially delegitimize the Obama presidency as “foreign”: “While [Glenn] Beck and [Rush] Limbaugh have chosen direct racial assault, others choose simply to deny that a black president actually exists. One in four Americans (and more than half of all Republicans) believe Obama was not born in this country, and thus is an illegitimate president.” Can you imagine what it would be like if the same crowd saw their President speaking a language that wasn’t the King’s English?
Furthermore, how would a President Castro react to the killing of Anastasio Hernandez by border agents? How would a President Castro talk about the plight of Nathaly Perez, forced to grow up in foster care after both of her parents were deported. After all, if Castro had a daughter, she’d look like Nathaly.
Coates argues that President Obama’s blackness actually prevents him from addressing the most pressing issues of race in America, especially mass incarceration and the war on drugs. Would Castro’s Latinidad actually make it harder for him to do something for the 11 million undocumented immigrants in this country?
The growth of the Hispanic population in the United States is reshaping the nation. How our politics react to this dramatic shift will define the coming decades. How our country works together to educate a community that woefully lags behind in achievement, how we empower a community that lost 66 percent of its net worth in the recession, how we bring 11 million undocumented immigrants out of the shadows of deportation will be critical in determining our nation’s success in the 21st century.
What is clear is that the first black president will have provided a road map for any future minority president. As the nation goes through the growing pains inherent in becoming a true multicultural society, President Obama has already provided a first, major step, inevitably making the road a little less treacherous.