The Greek physician Hippocrates wrote that
Scythians, the nomadic people whom the Greeks considered the "barbarians" of
their time, all looked alike. The Greeks, by contrast, were heterogenous in stature and
Hippocrates certainly wasn't the first person to caricaturize and homogenize other
peoples. While adjectives and epithets have varied, there is a constant in all such
characterizations: The "civilized" pride themselves on their diversity; the
"barbarians" are invariably uniform.
Similar judgments are made today and have crept into coverage of this year's City
Council races. The media routinely refer to black, Latino and Asian
"communities," but seldom, if ever, to a "white community." One
understandable reason for sorting millions of nonwhite Americans into various ethnic
communities is a need to make these groups more intelligible, but the result often creates
awkward portrayals. Last week, a Los Angeles TV news anchor reported that "the
Chinese American community" hosted a banquet for visiting Chinese Prime Minister Zhu
Rongji. There are 400,000 Chinese Americans in Southern California. What about those
Chinese Americans who protested Zhu's arrival? Are they members of the Chinese American
To ask such questions is to highlight the habit of viewing nonwhite groups as
centralized organizations rather than as collections of individuals with diverse opinions
and outlooks. Typing ethnic groups not only distorts our understanding of them, it also
diminishes the importance of individual voters and precinct-level political activity.
Obsession with the idea of minority unity, furthermore, undermines the goal of cultivating
more political discussion to bring about greater civic involvement.
When writing about the politics of nonwhites, journalists often pick up the phone and
ask a minority "spokesperson" or "leader" what his or her people think
about any given issue. The same journalist would never call, say, Gov. Gray Davis to ask
him what white people think about Social Security. The assumption is that Anglos live as
individuals, while minorities are mere extensions of a collective mentality.
In addition to oversimplifying complex populations, identifying nonwhites as cohesive
communities, rather than as individuals, can promote racist and ethnocentric ideologies.
Ethnocentric ideologues or activists eagerly welcome opportunities to speak for a
single-minded, 30-million-strong "Latino community." When African American
activists tell a black conservative that he is not black enough, they are declaring there
is only one true way to think or act as an African American. Conversely, the very idea of
homogenous minorities is indispensable to racists who want to paint ethnic groups with
broad brush strokes.
Notions of sameness among nonwhite groups facilitate brokerage politics, in which elite
"race leaders" pursue the purportedly unified interests of their people as if
they were corporate CEOs. This type of politics is "ultimately a form of high-level
negotiation," contends New School for Social Research political scientist Adolph L.
Reed Jr. The black leader gets to sit down with the Latino leader who gets to sit down
with the government representative.
But brokerage politics' preoccupation with ethnic chieftains marginalizes the
minorities themselves. Average citizens either don't have a voice or apparently aren't
worth sounding out. For example, in coverage of the race to succeed Councilman Richard
Alatorre, in the 14th Councilmanic District, the endorsements of "prominent ethnic
leaders" have played a starring role. Sure, the sheer number of candidates in that
race--14--makes the endorsement angle appealing. But in the contest in the heavily black
10th District, there are far fewer contenders, yet endorsements also are a big part of
that story, including that of former Mayor Tom Bradley.
In the 7th District race to succeed Richard Alarcon, the media have even resurrected
the ancient rivalry between Alatorre and L.A. County Supervisor Gloria Molina to explain
their opposing endorsements. Because of the assumption that all Latinos are of like mind,
it is considered "news" when two Latino officials don't get along. By contrast,
Anglo officials are expected to disagree with each other, and in campaigns involving Anglo
candidates, endorsements regularly take a back-seat to contribution totals.
Coverage of minority electoral races are more likely to include images of back-room
deals than of New Hampshire-style straw polls. Put another way, Anglo politicians are
expected to follow the will of their voters, while Latino voters are thought to serve the
will of their politicians. Assuming that Latinos behave more like a hierarchical
organization than a diverse ethnic group, some political scientists still envision a
"Latino rank and file" in lock-step behind their leaders. The media, wittingly
or unwittingly, play into this brokerage model of politics by pursuing identifiable ethnic
figureheads to help negotiate what in reality is as complex and complicated a voter base
as the white electorate. In the end, no one is listening to opinions of the average voter.
Of course, many minority members gladly take part in the
"take-me-to-your-leader" style of minority politics. How many times have you
heard a writer or a politician tell the world what his or her ethnic "community"
thinks or feels? A generation ago, when African Americans had yet to secure the right to
vote, it was morally incumbent upon the black middle-class elite to speak for those who
were blocked from the polls. But today, this top-down approach squashes, rather than
promotes, fruitful political activity. Brokerage-style politics need groups to posture as
united fronts behind common leaders. But encouraging correct, communal thinking is the
antithesis of the kind of debate that breeds new ideas and political change. Social
scientists consistently have found that "group thought" boosts the strength of
military regimes, while a healthy democracy thrives on vibrant debate among individuals.
To prehistoric man, identity and behavior were one and the same. But in postmodern
America, ethnicity is only one layer of many identities that people juggle. In the vast
majority of cases, the ethnicities that bind are fluid, sometimes even tenuous. Ethnicity
and race shape people's worldview, but they do not strip them of their individuality.
Community more accurately refers to geography, not ethnicity or race. At any of this
season's candidate forums, L.A. voters of all ethnicities were most attentive when the
candidates spoke of improving trash pickup, street lighting or traffic signs. These voters
don't live in the larger Latino, black or Asian "communities" but in
neighborhoods with their own special problems and needs. For all the recent talk of the
importance of the ethnic vote, nonwhites are still viewed much the way the ancient Greeks
saw the Scythians. Only when the diversity of ethnic minorities is factored into the
electoral calculus will nonwhites have truly arrived as political forces.
Copyright 1999, Los Angeles Times