Black-Brown Tensions in California’s 2016 Senate Race? Don’t Believe The Hype

Horserace analogies are frequently used to describe political campaigns. However, if a Latino Democrat emerges in the 2016 Senate race, a boxing metaphor is likely to be used. The anticipated bout may pit Kamala Harris and her African American supporters against a Latino candidate with his or her co-ethnic supporters. A recent story bore the headline, “Ethnic battles brewing in 2016 California U.S. Senate Race?” Will the election elicit tensions between Blacks and Browns in the Golden State? The answer is no; don’t believe the hype. Should the primary election pair Kamala Harris, an African American candidate, against a Latino candidate, the voting patterns of African Americans and Latinos should not be taken as an indicator of underlying racialized tensions.

The retirement of California Senator Barbara Boxer has caused political junkies, much like sports bookies, to lay odds on the outcome of 2016 Senate race. The main event will play itself out in the primaries since the state’s Republican Party is close to political oblivion. Kamala Harris, California’s Attorney General, may go up against one of the following Latino heavyweights: former L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa; U.S. Representative Loretta Sanchez; Secretary of State Alex Padilla; U.S. Representative Xavier Becerra; or another emerging contender. A ticket like this all but guarantees a media frenzy over Black-Brown racialized tensions in California. It is time to blunt such sophomoric political and social analysis.

Two noteworthy cases illustrate how, at first glance, the voting patterns of African Americans and Latinos suggest the existence of racial antagonisms. However, more thorough scrutiny reveals that this initial assessment was misplaced. The split between African American and Latino votes was the result of differences in political preferences, not underlying racial tensions.

The first example is the 2001 Los Angeles mayoral race between then former Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa and City Attorney James K. Hahn. In this election, 80% of African Americans voted for Hahn while 82% of Latinos voted for Villaraigosa. Hahn’s victory was attributed to the strong support he received from African American voters. While some noted that Black voters backed him out of loyalties to his father Kenneth, a county supervisor who faithfully represented African Americans for decades, others contended that his support was driven by ongoing antipathies between these two communities (Kaufmann 2004). The proposition that there were longstanding racial tensions between Blacks and Latinos was thrown out the window in 2005 when Villaraigosa easily triumphed over Hahn, with strong backing from African American voters. Hahn’s firing of African American Police Chief Bernard Parks and other missteps led Black voters to back the Latino mayor. Racialized tensions had little to nothing to do with either election.

The second example emerges from the 2008 presidential election. The extended Democratic primary was a contest between two political heavyweights, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Latino voters overwhelmingly supported Clinton, while African American voters fully supported Obama. Indeed, Clinton’s longevity was often attributed to Latino voters, or “Clinton’s firewall” as they came to be known. During the primary contest it was suggested on numerous occasions that Latinos were reluctant to support Obama because he is African American. Clinton’s pollster, Sergio Bendixon in an interview stated, “the Hispanic voter—and I want to say this very carefully—has not shown a lot of willingness or affinity to support black candidates.” When Obama emerged victorious and headed into the general election it was believed that Latinos would not support Obama out of a reluctance to vote for an African American. Despite these pessimistic predictions, Latino turnout was at a historic high and Obama won 67% of their vote. Once again racial tensions did not play a role in the election.

These two examples are important cases in which differences between Latino and African American voters were initially and incorrectly attributed to underlying racial hostilities. Professor and Latino Decisions founder Matt Barreto, in his book Ethnic Cues: The Role of Shared Ethnicity in Latino Political Participation (2012) provides many other cases in which Latinos overwhelmingly supported African American candidates. Not surprisingly, there are numerous examples of African Americans strongly backed Latino candidates.

If a Latino Democrat enters the 2016 Senate race, undoubtedly some will argue that the likely split between African America and Latino voters over the candidates is an expression of Black-Brown tensions. My response to these pessimistic predictions is don’t believe the hype. African American and Latino political differences are simply that – political differences that are not rooted in racial animosities. Stories highlighting racialized tensions are not based on some objective reality but on a desire to grab readers’ attention, much like a promoter hyping an uneventful boxing match.


Adrian Pantoja, Ph.D. is Senior Analyst for Latino Decisions and Professor of Political Studies and Chicano Studies at Pitzer College, a member of the Claremont Colleges.

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