Ask Wade Henderson, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, about the future of civil and human rights under the administration of President-elect Barack Obama, and he will not focus on the “structural inequality based on race and discrimination” regarding voting, or employment or even the criminal justice system.
Rather, the two sleeper civil rights issues “just beneath the surface” during the presidential campaign that “will present the greatest challenges for the Obama administration in its first term,” Mr. Henderson predicts, are public education and immigration reform.
“The de facto segregation [in American society] is greatly reduced, but fundamental structural inequities inherent [in certain institutions] still produce unfair results,” Mr. Henderson said last week during a meeting in the District of the Trotter Group of black columnists (www.trottergroup.org).
“They need to demonstrate that government can work again,” the veteran watchdog and lobbyist said of the next administration. And, minority citizens “need to have general basic tools to begin with that they are denied.”
In public education, for example, resources often are not distributed equally among urban, rural and suburban school districts, so Mr. Henderson proposes increased federal government involvement and oversight; not necessarily funding.
“Education has to be at the top of the list for anyone going forward to achieve equality,” Mr. Henderson said. He suggested that progressive groups join forces to lobby for substantive reforms.
An even bigger “sleeper issue” confronting the Obama administration will be immigration reform. Mr. Henderson said “immigration is the new third rail” because “it affects every domestic policy” from providing health care to “education for all English-language learners,” who now represent 20 percent of the population.
“If Obama is to be re-elected, he will have to fulfill his promises to African-Americans and Latinos,” he said. For example, job displacement and the so-called “witch hunt for immigrants” present an immediate test.
Here Mr. Henderson cited an Immigration and Customs Enforcement raid on 600 immigrants who were turned in by a white union worker fearful of losing his job. A report by the Southern Poverty Law Center also indicates that hate crimes targeting Latinos increased again in 2007, capping a 40 percent rise in the four years since 2003, based on FBI statistics.
There is a “very changed population that has re-created the political landscape,” because states that were never considered progressive helped propel Mr. Obama to victory for this ‘watershed election,’” Mr. Henderson said.
In several of those states, such as Florida, New Mexico and Colorado, a majority of new Latino and Asian-Americans voted for a Democrat. Based on projections, Mr. Henderson added that 80 percent of the population growth in the U.S. will be among immigrants. This suggests a trend toward a multiracial, intergenerational and multi-ethnic coalition.
David Bositis, senior research associate of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Activities, told the Trotter Group that a coalition of white, black and Hispanic voters made the election of the nation’s first black president possible.
Based on his findings, Mr. Bositis said Mr. Obama won the white vote in 16 states, while garnering 16.6 million or 95 percent of black votes and flipped the Hispanic votes in states such as Florida and New Mexico that President Bush won in 2004.
“According to the exit polls, Hispanics increased their share of the total vote from six percent (2004) to eight percent (2008),” Mr. Bositis’ analysis reads. These voters also made a difference in Colorado, Nevada and the northern Virginia suburbs.
Agreeing with Mr. Henderson’s premise, Paco Fabian, communications director of America’s Voice (www.americasvoiceonline.org), said that “considering that the ‘sleeping giant’ — the sleeping giant being Latinos who participated in the election — woke up, yes, we agree that immigration will be a sleeper issue for the Obama administration.”
Mr. Fabian said his organization will continue to advocate for comprehensive immigration reform that “requires people to come out of the shadows … and gives them a pass to become full citizens,” which includes paying taxes.
At a video news conference on Thursday, a coalition of Latino leaders released studies that indicated that Republicans failed to make immigration a wedge issue in the election.
A report conducted by Lake Research Partners and Benenson Strategy Group for America’s Voice shows “nearly 8 in 10 (78 percent) voters consider illegal immigration to be a serious issue, and overwhelmingly, they favor a comprehensive approach to immigration reform.”
“It’s a civil-rights issue as much as a debate about policy to Latinos,” said Janet Murguia, president and CEO of the National Council of La Raza. “Stirring up anti-immigration rhetoric does not work, but it has energized one group - Latinos.”
Another report by America’s Voice, “Republicans: Fenced in by Immigration,” indicates that 19 pro-reform candidates, who advocated for immigration policies beyond enforcement-only, beat hard-liners in 21 battleground House and Senate races.”
Many non-Latino voters refused to support leading anti-immigrant crusaders, and, in many other close races across the country, supported candidates with more comprehensive approaches to immigration reform, Mr. Fabian notes.
“The Republican Party is at a crossroads. Either it cuts out the red-meat xenophobia and gets on the right side of the immigration issue, or it stands in danger of being relegated to ‘minority status’ (a fairly ironic term, all things considered) for the foreseeable future,” Mr. Fabian adds on his blog.
But Ms. Murguia warns that the Democrats cannot afford to get this wrong either, because Latinos are still swing voters.
And to cap it all off, Mr. Henderson said the Obama administration faces these sleeper issues while already hamstrung by a weak economy and increasing federal deficits.
I wish them well.