The tremor from the illegal immigration fight has shaken Democrats and Republicans. But it also threatens a tidal change in Black politics.
Though Latinos have displaced Blacks as the nation's largest minority group, the popular notion lingers that they are years away from packing the political wallop of Black voters and politicians.
Language, citizenship, age and lack of education supposedly prevent millions of legal and illegal Latino immigrants from muscling out Blacks from the top spot in ethnic politics. But the illegal immigration battle has shattered that myth.
In 2000, the 23 million Blacks eligible to vote dwarfed the 13 million Latinos eligible to vote, even though Latinos then had virtually reached parity with Blacks in terms of population. At the time, more than one-third of the Latino population was less than 18 years old. Forty percent of Latinos who were of eligible voting age were noncitizens, compared to only 5 percent of Blacks who were of voting age but were noncitizens.
But that is quickly changing. Since the 2000 election the number of Latino citizens of voting age has jumped. There are now an estimated 10 million Latino registered voters. That compares more favorably and evenly with the 15 million Black voters in the 2004 election.
In past elections, the majority of the Latino vote was concentrated in California, Texas, Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado. In the 2006 national elections — helped by the sharp increase in the number of legal and illegal immigrants in the Midwest and Northeastern states — the Latino vote will have national impact.
Democrat and Republican strategists will dump millions into Spanish-language ads on Spanish language stations. When — not if — Democrats and Republicans cut an immigration reform deal, one of its features almost certainly will include some form of legalization plan that within a few years will turn thousands of Latino immigrants into vote-casting American citizens.
Democrats and Republicans will pour even more time, money and personnel into courting Latino voters. The reasoning is that the potential political gain from a massive outreach effort to Latinos is far greater than putting the same resources into courting Black voters. It's sound political reasoning, and it worked for Republicans in 2004.
Bush got nearly 40 percent of the Latino vote. The Democrats, meanwhile, maintain a solid lock on the Black vote. In every election since 1964, Blacks have given more than 80 to 90 percent of their votes to the Democrats. Bush's comatose response to thousands of Blacks fleeing for their lives from Hurricane Katrina floodwaters in New Orleans further infuriated Blacks. That wrecked Bush and the GOP's carefully micromanaged effort to woo more Black votes to the GOP.
With the tantalizing prospect of large numbers of newly enfranchised Latino voters voting Republican, there's absolutely no political incentive for Republicans to try to do more to get the Black vote. That even includes its relentless pursuit of the Black evangelicals.
The leap in Latino voting strength comes at a bad time for Black politicians. Though the number of Black elected officials has held steady in state offices and in Congress, their spectacular growth of prior years has flattened out. According to the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, the slight increase in the number of Black elected officials has been in only a handful of Deep South states and Illinois.
During the 2004 Democratic presidential primaries, the seven White male Democratic presidential contenders were virtually mute on failing inner city schools, soaring Black unemployment, prison incarceration and the HIV/AIDS crisis that has torn Black communities. It took loudgrumblesfromthe Congressional Black Caucus for Democratic presidential contender Sen. John Kerry to make a few cautious and circumspect statements on some of these issues.
The hard reality is that immigration, both legal and illegal, has drastically changed America's ethnic and political landscape. Black voters and elected officials have no choice but to come to grips with that change and try making it work for them, not against them.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is a columnist for www.blacknews.com.