The Marco Rubio phenomenon: Will Latin@s become the new “model minority” project?

Even before Election Night 2012 had come to an end, Republican strategists were already murmuring about Florida Senator (R) Marco Rubio as a strategically-wise future presidential candidate (he’d been considered as a potential Romney running mate, but Paul Ryan ultimately got the gig). The fact that white Americans represent only 63% of the United States’ population today and will lose their majority status by 2040 was reiterated by Harvest of Empire; white supremacists (whether they admit to that title or not) are squirming in their seats about this inevitability. The aforementioned GOP strategists acknowledged and mourned the blow from the low support in the Latin@ community. A UC Berkeley blog summarizes:

“Even with 62% of the white vote, Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney could not win a majority of the popular vote, let alone the electoral vote. Eight-eight percent of Romney’s support came from white voters, yet Romney only won 48.1% of the overall vote. Part of the reason for this is that the President won huge majorities of the non-white vote. Obama won 93% of the African-American vote, 71% of the Latino vote, 73% of the Asian vote, and 38% of the white vote.” (Powell 2013)

Latin@s made up about 10% of the electorate, and another 3 million will be eligible to vote in the next presidential election. Although this participation percentage is much smaller than their total population, it represents a hugely significant stack of votes that, at a rate of 3:1, tend to go Democrat.

I wish I could objectively appreciate the GOP’s enthusiasm for supporting a person of color’s rise in the ranks, but even they admit to playing the identity politics game with Marco Rubio in an effort to “convert” Latin@ voters: the Christian Science Monitor ran an Opinions article written by former chairman of the Republican Party, Ed Gillespie, with the headline, “GOP success strategy: Recruit more Hispanics (like Marco Rubio) and women” (CSM 2013).

When I say “convert,” I decidedly do not mean “convince.” These strategies do not result in increased attention paid to that group’s interest; they try to recruit voters into the GOP’s white agenda without adjusting their platforms to be more inclusive or less discriminatory.

Okay. This sounds eerily, squickily familiar.

Asians also don’t turn out to vote in rates correlative to their total eligible population – or even correlative to other voters with their average rate of education; they represent over 5% of the voter-eligible population (or ~11% if you include half-Asians), but only 3% of the 2012 Election Day electorate (and even this 3% representation is a dramatic jump from previous levels of participation) (Powell 2013, Wolff 2012). They also voted Democrat at a rate of 3:1 in this past election, but I suspect that these GOP strategists are not increasing their “Asian conversion” efforts for two main reasons: by the numbers, they don’t represent as much of an immediately-concerning voting bloc as do Latin@s, and furthermore, white supremacists both within and outside of the GOP have already historically tried (and often succeeded) to “convert” Asians.

Now, I’m not saying that Latin@s and Asians have identical histories of oppression – of course they don’t. But some of the reasons for those conversion tactics look very similar, as do the actual methods of tactical implementation. And while this isn’t the first time that some Latin@s were singled out for preferential treatment (Cuban-Americans, as an example, or wealthy and/or light-skinned Latin@s, more generally), there seems to be a significant shift from courting one group in particular to courting the Latin@ population as a “homogenous” group in the way that Asians were targeted “homogenously” as well. (By “homogenous,” I mean to imply that the GOP uses homogenous rhetoric to address citizens with many/most/all nations of origin, not that Asians or Latin@s are homogenous groups. When Reagan helped coin the term “Hispanic” to envelop Latin@s from all countries of origin, he was pushing that homogenizing, flattening agenda via the US Census — all the better to identify bad subjects with, my dear!)

My own experiences made me critical of the “whitewashed Asian” stereotype that is often perpetuated even by other Asians. My zero/first-generation Asian family definitely does not reap all the widely-lauded benefits of being “model minorities” who are “almost white.”  My mother’s bootstraps have just about snapped in half from how hard she’s tried to pull herself up, but let me tell you, we’ve been too busy sifting through all the daily racism and poverty to track down her pesky just deserts.

Here’s what I learned when I looked harder: the push toward whitewashing Asians (particularly lighter-skinned East Asians) was spearheaded by conservative white men as a deliberate attempt to recruit the significant Asian-American voting population into their Republican voting bloc. By dangling the carrot of being almost white, they wanted to avoid being punished at the polls for American occupation/colonization/war; a brutal legacy of immigration roadblocks; grossly underpaid labor and violence (like in the construction of the transcontinental railroad); communism phobia and its malignant little brother, yellow peril paranoia; hate crimes; state-sanctioned detainment and internment; and so on.

Sound familiar?

This game of blocking coalition formation by offering “almost whiteness” to some is not original; it has been played by the French imperial state in Africa and Asia for hundreds of years, and versions of the same method are emblematic of nearly all (neo)colonial psychological warfare/control. Divide and conquer. A different form of the game played into the rather recent assimilation of Jewish people into mainstream white culture, for example; a huge part of Anti-Semitism is historically rooted in otherizing Jews as being people of color, but that color-coding has virtually disappeared both from discussions of Anti-Semitism and of Jewish identity (although their whiteness has been achieved more successfully than most other groups I can think of, for myriad complex reasons) (Gabriel 54).

In November 2012, I went to the Oregon Students of Color Conference, where I attended a lecture by OSU’s Professor Patti Sakurai (whose work you should all check out – I deeply respect and admire her). She compared sociological factors like the high concentration of Asians in urban centers with the urban/rural cost of living. Then, she applied that lens to US Census data and charts from the New York Times to break down the statistical fallacies in the “successful model minority” image perpetuated by the United States government and the mainstream media. She and I – and many others – subscribe to the evidence-saturated idea that these success stories are strategically exaggerated in order to drive a wedge between Asians and other communities of color, recruiting Asians for white, conservative causes (all while never intending to let Asians become “fully white” in terms of access to resources and rights). She spoke about how these conservatives attempt to exploit Asians’ stereotypically “traditional, conservative” nature as a point of identification with conservative white citizens.

When she said it, a warning bell went off in my head. Where else had I heard about this strategy being employed?

California’s Proposition 8 Campaign. The conservative leaders in the Pro-8 battle explicitly solicited Latin@ support because of mutual religious white/Latin@ identification. As a predominantly Catholic community, they said, you Latino@s should agree that the Bible condemns gay marriage. And it worked. Proposition 8 passed by a margin of only 4% – 52/48. A slight majority of California’s 20% Latin@ electorate voted in favor of Prop. 8, and both Pro- and Anti-8 activists identified the Latin@ vote as the tipping point. Funders of the Pro-8 campaign ran Spanish ads that deliberately misinformed voters. For example, one said that explicitly pro-gay marriage messages would be taught in public schools if the proposition didn’t pass (Hispanic Business 2008, Bjerg 2012). Um. Malarkey.

To return to Marco Rubio and the aftermath of the 2012 presidential election, the Republican Party is trying its damnedest to revamp its image in the face of a very different electorate. They can no longer rely on the fact that older, wealthier, male-majority, conservative-leaning, white voters have tended to get out the vote at higher rates than others. Times are a-changing.  In an effort to grab the youth vote and Latin@ vote at the same time, Republican National Committee (RNC) chair Reince Priebus helped launch the “Latino RNC” Tumblr and Twitter pages in early 2013, targeting the young, social media-savvy Latin@ electorate.

41-year-old Marco Rubio is the picture of youth, charisma, and American Dream “model minority”-ness. As soon as I learned that Rubio was from Miami, I wondered if he was Cuban – and he is. We’ve talked in class about the odd, “model minority” status of Cubans already; they were welcomed with open, white savior arms to a communism-fearing United States that strategically hoped to bleed Fidel Castro of support and stability. On his website’s biography page, Rubio reinforces this anti-communist narrative in his parents’ immigration story, calling Castro’s leadership a deadly “communist grip” on the country (Rubio 2012).

Rubio rarely acknowledges his Cuban identity, and when he does, he typically does so only to denounce communism. Not coincidentally, the highlights of Rubio’s political track record reveal a heavy focus on the traditional conservative agenda: small government economic stability as a means for national security; namely, never raise taxes but never cut defense spending. He has only briefly commented on issues deemed particularly important to Latin@ voters – for example, in January of this year, he said that his opinion on immigration reform corroborates with the moderate Republican plan of highly-regimented background checks (to pick out the good, educated, useful immigrants, and exclude the criminals and freeloaders), fines, back taxes, probation, and continued deportation.

While he is slightly more forgiving than other conservatives who advocate for the status quo or even increased deportation, he still encourages the idea of preferential treatment for “model minority” immigrants (which explains his support for the DREAM Act’s university-bound undocumented students; indeed, he intentionally sandwiched his advocacy for the DREAM Act with a call to Republicans to stop alienating the numerically-significant Latin@ voting bloc).

It can be of no surprise that the Republican Party chose a Latino whose parents had a comparatively smooth immigration process, thus allowing him to distance himself from the kind of visceral, first-hand experience of xenophobia that many other Latin@ immigrants face. As an added bonus, he presents with many “whiter” physical traits; in fact, at first glance, before I knew his name or background, he passed for white to me:

Here’s his official Congressional portrait. I don’t want to be too much of a conspiracy theorist, but his skin here looks several shades lighter than a recent CBS screenshot of him speaking at the 2012 RNC – maybe this is insignificant, coincidental tanning, or maybe it’s Maybelline Photoshop?

I want to be careful to insist that anyone of any ethnicity is not honor-bound to be loyal to any party in order to qualify as a “real” or “good” member of that ethnicity. I don’t want to discredit the very real political savvy and experience that Marco Rubio undoubtedly possesses that make him an equally good posterboy for the Republicans as any white politician; the “underqualified token minority benefits from affirmative action” motif is definitely, definitely not one that I want to perpetuate. And anyway, it’s not like the Democratic Party has a great track record for being that different from their Republican counterparts.

bush obama

COUGH drones COUGH. Whoooops…(Street art by Dusin Spagnola; this version, as fate would have it, is at NW 24th St., Miami, Florida. Rubio territory.)

With that caveat mentioned, do I believe there is evidence that Rubio is benefiting from and personally encouraging strategic identity politics? Yep. Is he is exercising his dual consciousness to more successfully play up his “exception to the Althusserian ‘bad subject’ Latin@ rule”-ness? I think so. He seems to be responding the Hail by said, “Yes, it’s me, but I’m not who you think I am. I’m like you.”

He and his supporters are playing the strategic essentialism game in two big ways: first, they are using Rubio’s classic “model minority” success story of hard work/pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps as a way to unify all Latin@s without acknowledging – and, I think, avoiding – that his family’s Cuban roots afforded him certain privileges not available to all Latin@ immigrants; second, Rubio’s pan-Latin@ narrative of “model minority” achievement serves as a way to distance “good Latin@ subjects” from “bad Latin@ subjects” as well as all other “bad subjects” of color.” Asians also heard that they were “hard working” and “different” and “better than other brown people” in order to discourage their identification with “bad POC subjects.” In both cases, the constructions of “good subjecthood” rely mainly on the vilification and perpetuation of negative stereotypes of black and Latin@ communities – poor, crime-ridden, amoral, hypersexual, lazy, welfare-abusing, job-stealing, and so on.

This erasure of both national origin’s significance and historically-rooted and still-felt oppression is very Foucaultian in nature. In “We ‘Other Victorians’” and “The Incitement to Discourse,” we learned that the sexuality of the past has been strategically narrated to be muted, secret, universally shameful, or even nonexistent. That nostalgic narrative, although without basis in fact or retroactive appraisal of censorship, is used to police present and future expressions of sexuality: policing sex created “a new regime of discourses. Not any less was said about [sex]; on the contrary. But things were said in a different way; it was different people who said them, from different points of view, and in order to obtain different results” (Foucault 27).

Rubio seems to be a strategically-chosen creator of Latin@ political discourse; just as the state constructed a particular kind of discourse to achieve its goal of monitoring and controlling sex, it is now attempting to monitor and control the votes of Latin@s. This is made achievable by qualifying Rubio as simultaneously exemplary and universally-representative, granting him the ability to be a mouthpiece for a particular kind of assessment of the past and present Latin@ history – Foucault calls this the state institution’s strategy of “[coding] contents and [qualifying] speakers” (Foucault 29).

Oh, the United States colonized and continues to occupy your land, stuck its nose inexorably into your economies, created and exploited the political/fiscal instability that led to your widespread immigration to the US, and then hated the fact that you came? (All true of many immigrants from Asian and Latin American states.) Ah, yes, but when your demographic’s presence results in millions of citizens and voters, you need to forget all that and instead believe that hard work and obedience will result in approval from the white supremacists.

There’s a reason that the self-identifying “whitewashed” Asian kids at my high school were never taught about the extensive coalition work between Asian-Americans and the Black Panther Party; the narrative has been reconstructed to tokenize the success of Asians so they are more preoccupied with living the model minority American Dream than they are with maintaining important alliances with other people of color. In that reconstruction process, the contents of history were coded to nostalgically erase dissent as a premise for ensuring current and future obedience.

Is the Rubio phenomenon trying to do the same thing to Latin@ history? Well…If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it might be systemic, white supremacist powermongering…


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