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banner Thursday, 2 November, 2000, 14:33 GMT
The Latino challenge

By Carlos Munoz Jr, Professor Emeritus Department of Ethnic Studies, University of California, Berkeley

The Gore and Bush campaigns for the presidency of the United States have heated up.

The polls have made it clear it will be an extremely close vote, and as the Mexican-American vote made the difference for President Kennedy in his defeat of Richard Nixon 40-years ago, this time around the Latino vote will again be a deciding factor.


Latinos form perhaps the most culturally diverse population in the US, representing 17 nationalities of Latin America

The Latino vote in the United States has become a critical factor in the presidential election because the Latino population has dramatically increased during the last 10 years.

For example, Latinos are now the largest ethnic and racial minority group in California, the state with the largest population in the nation.

According to the demographic estimates of the US Census Bureau, Latinos will become the majority population of California by the mid 21st Century and the largest ethnic and racial group in the United States.

Diversity

Politicians are well aware of the fact that Latinos will not vote as a cohesive bloc - the majority of Latinos are registered Democrats but the ranks of Latino Republicans has increased significantly over the years.

Mexican-Americans in New York
Mexican-Americans are the largest group but the Hispanic community is diverse
Latinos are also making their presence known in the ranks of the various third parties throughout the United States.

Although Mexican-Americans continue to be the largest group within the Latino population, increasing immigration from other Latin American means they are perhaps the most culturally diverse population in the United States, representing 17 distinct nationalities and cultures of Latin America.

But Latino cultural diversity and increasing political representation in the ranks of voters in the US has not meant social and economic betterment for the vast majority of them.

Discrimination

The majority do improve their living conditions compared to what they had in their homeland but in the context of the US society, they share the same racial and ethnic discrimination suffered by African Americans.

The majority of Latino workers have not benefited from the booming economy. They are the most likely to lose their jobs.

  • About 30% of Latinos live in poverty.

  • Latinos have the lowest levels of educational achievement.

  • Only 2% of all lawyers in the United States are Latinos although they are 12% of the nation's population.

  • Like African Americans, Latinos are over represented in the prisons.

The dramatic increase of the Latino population has generated a racist anti-Latino immigrant politics in the United States that has resulted in perhaps the most repressive immigration policy in the nation's history.

One of President Clinton's proud accomplishments has been the militarisation of the US-Mexico border.

Violence

Anti-Latino immigrant politics has also resulted in increased violence against Latinos in border cities and throughout the United States.

Child learning to read
Education is a key issue for Hispanic voters
In Arizona, white vigilantes have terrorised scores of immigrants. In North Carolina, white supremacist groups led by David Duke and other KKK type leaders have held organised protest rallies against Latino immigrants.

Latino immigrants have also become the targets of white politicians who have spearheaded anti-immigrant electoral campaigns.

In California, the majority of white voters passed Proposition 187. The Proposition aimed to cut all state benefits to immigrants in the areas of public health and public education.

Fortunately, a lawsuit by the Mexican-American Legal Defence Fund (Maldef), supported by the American Civil Liberties Union and other civil rights groups, prevented 187 from becoming law on the grounds that it was unconstitutional.

Unfortunately, another anti-immigrant proposition numbered 227 was voted on by the majority of California white voters and became law. It terminated bi-lingual education.

Challenge

The challenge before Latino voters in this presidential election is to make clear to Mr Gore and Mr Bush that the they will be held accountable for how they will address the needs and concerns of Latinos in the future.

The parading of token Latino speakers and entertainers at their respective nominating conventions and speaking a few words in Spanish is not enough.

Latinos represent the future of the United States and we therefore have the responsibility to play a key role in the development of an authentic multi-racial and multi-cultural democracy in the US in the 21st Century.

This year's presidential election is a critical step in the direction of taking on that awesome challenge.

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