The Democrats’ ‘Most Diverse Field in History’ Is as White as Ever at the Top

Ruben Navarrette Jr.
Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast/Getty

As a Mexican-American raised in the farmland of Central California where they grow everything except opportunities for brown people, it was up to me to grow my own. You plant ambition, and water it with education, talent, and hard work.

I tell other Latinos: Don’t play the victim, even when you are the victim. We can’t get mired down in the self-defeating belief that the world is out to get us, even though sometimes the world is out to get us. 

Last year, I agreed to leave my writer’s cave to take part in a media panel at a Los Angeles gathering of high-achieving Latino college students organized by the Hispanic Scholarship Fund. 

I was joined by a Latina who has served as a commentator on a financial television network. Her message to the students was positive and familiar: You can do anything. My message was different: You can do anything—but you’re still not going to achieve parity with white men. 

Consider my own 30-year-long career in journalism. I’ve had three newspaper jobs and been part of two editorial boards; I have two Harvard degrees, yet I always wound up working for white men who went to a state college. I’ve had no fewer than a dozen side hustles—from speaking to hosting radio shows to writing for magazines. 

Dear White People: After El Paso, You Should Pipe Down and Listen to Us

Many times, I told the students, white men doing the same jobs were paid more than I was. I would quote a figure for a speech, and a white male with less experience would quote twice as much without blinking.

I saw white men who ran media companies “fail up” by getting promoted after making costly mistakes. White men always seem to have a leg up—in my profession and in many others. 

I’ve had a syndicated column for 18 years. When I started, there were 10 Latino syndicated columnists. Today, there are half as many.

I’ve lost newspaper clients—papers that were running my column—because, the editors told my bosses, I didn’t write about “Latino topics” often enough. Other papers dropped my column because, they said, I wrote about those subjects too often. 

I used to tell my bosses that, when it came to dealing with Latino columnists, clients had a steep learning curve. They didn’t get it. That is, until the day one of them was asked by a prospective client: “How does he feel about illegal immigration?” My boss responded, “Well, it’s illegal…”

I bet George Will gets the same question all the time.  

Overall, I’ve been blessed with opportunities. But I’ve also had setbacks, many of which I attribute to my ethnicity. There are smoother roads than being a Latino journalist, trying to navigate an East Coast media that understands black and white but isn’t curious about anything else.

This is the message I felt compelled to share with the Latino students. 

While many of the students appreciated my candor, and later told me so, the adults in the room were not as supportive. How dare I plant such a self-defeating thought in those young minds?

Some people see a wall, and they give up. Others don’t see a wall, because they’re blind. I’m in the third camp: I see the wall, and I’ll get over it. But I don’t see the point in pretending it isn’t there. 

All this came back to me as I read about how, in the battle for the 2020 Democratic nomination, the only African-American woman in the contest believes that her race and gender are working against her.

In a recent interview, Kamala Harris said that the fact that she has fallen out of the top tier of candidates is due to the “elephant in the room”—namely that America isn’t ready for a president who is a woman of color. 

In polls, Harris trails Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg—all of whom are white.

For all the hullabaloo about how Democrats have a diverse slate of candidates, it turns out that voters in Iowa and New Hampshire—most of whom are white—may not be so enamored of diversity after all.

As human resource managers will tell you, employers hire people who remind them of themselves. Perhaps the same goes for voting. 

Still, when Harris mentioned race and gender, skeptics jeered. Many on the right argued that it was her radical ideas that had taken her out of the running. Those on the left blamed her past work as a prosecutor in California who had done her part to lock away people of color.  

  

But we shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss what Harris said. For many voters, especially those who are white and elderly, it may be too big an adjustment for them to envision a black woman being elected president.

Also, remember these are Democrats who, polls confirm, want more than anything to beat Donald Trump. Even many of those who back Harris may not believe she is the strongest candidate to do that.

It’s never appealing to see presidential candidates–most of whom have, we can assume, lived a fairly privileged life to get this far–play the victim. Even when they’re being victimized. 

But Harris has a point. The rules are different for her. They just are. She has to spend a lot of her time reassuring white voters that their interests are not threatened by a Harris presidency. Every day, on the trail, while her opponents are making speeches, she has to make sure she doesn’t scare white folks. 

I feel you, Kamala. I’ve been saying the same thing for 10 months about the historic candidacy of Julian Castro, who is vying to become the nation’s first Latino president. For many people, that’s another adjustment. 

Immigration is a particularly challenging issue. It was always going to be difficult for Castro to escape the assumption that he supports an open border because, well, his last name is Castro. I myself remember the reader who, years ago, told me I just wanted to “let (my) cousins in.” But the open border label became impossible to shed when the Harvard-educated lawyer suggested ending the humanitarian crisis on the U.S.-Mexico border by decriminalizing unauthorized border crossings and instead making them civil violations. 

Is Julian Castro Our Century’s John F. Kennedy?

Castro is running out of moves. He barely met requirements to qualify for the November debate. His campaign recently laid off staff in the early-voting states of New Hampshire and South Carolina, which suggests that Team Castro is betting it all on making a good showing in Iowa.

When I write that Castro has an uphill climb because of his ethnicity, I get emails telling me I’m full of it. One reader wrote: “Read your article and Castro may be not doing as well, but I am sure it is not because he is Mexican.” Then the reader proceeded to talk about immigration, culture, and language. That conversation narrowed quickly, didn’t it?

So was Harris wrong to bring up her race and gender, and offer them as an explanation for why she’s not doing better? Have Americans reached the level of political maturity where we can talk about a candidate’s race, gender, ethnicity, or sexual orientation as casually as we mention the town they were born in or the university they attended?

It doesn’t seem so. Part of it is guilt. When some people—especially older white people—heard what Harris had to say, all they heard was that they’re being called racist and sexist. That’s not true. And it’s not fair.

In 1960, when John F. Kennedy was trying to break the faith ceiling and get elected the nation’s first Catholic president, the political analysts of the time should have been free to talk about that being a heavy lift without being accused of labeling all Americans as anti-Catholic bigots. 

It’s time for America to grow up and get real. In politics, as with other professions, it’s always going to be easier for white men to get into the top tier or wind up in the winner’s circle. It’s what we consider normal. 

Remember how, in the 2016 election, Hillary Clinton was hammered for, of all things, speaking too loudly? The hammering came from reporters and commentators who were comically oblivious to the fact that Bernie Sanders’ natural mode of communication was shouting. It still is. 

Americans are not supposed to say that, in some respects, Hillary had it tougher than Bernie, or that Clinton’s gender may have been a liability in the general election against Trump.

We’re not supposed to point out people’s differences or offer them as an excuse when those folks come up short in pursuit of a goal. We will tolerate a lot in this country. But for the last few decades, one thing we haven’t been eager to tolerate is people playing the victim.

Americans are supposed to be beyond all that. After all, this is the land of opportunity. It’s not the land of obstacles, victims, and excuses. We’re told to celebrate the virtues of diversity—almost blindly, and not dwell on its limitations.

We mustn’t talk about the negative consequences of someone’s gender or color—especially in the post-civil rights, post-affirmative action, post-Barack Obama era. 

You can see how high achieving people of color like Castro or Harris—who have led privileged lives and gone far, arguably aided in part because of their skin color—are in a tough spot. 

On the one hand, it’s unseemly for them to play the victim and claim their race or gender is, in any way, holding them back. It appears they’re doing fine. 

But on the other hand, that is exactly what is happening. The high achievers may not be the right people to mention it, but the rest of us should not shrink from the assertion. We have to be able to confront it. 

Understandably, Americans may not have an appetite to confront what divides them. But how else are we supposed to get better, and make “equal opportunity” a reality and not just a feel-good phrase?

It’s time to stop pretending that we’re all on equal footing, and that women and people of color have the same opportunities that white men do and that they face no additional obstacles, prejudices, or challenges to which white men are immune.

That’s a fairy tale. We haven’t gotten there yet. And we don’t start telling ourselves the truth, we never will.

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