Jewish Journal

Ethnic Politics Grimmer Side

by  David A. Lehrer

September 8, 2011 | 4:08 pm

The Huffington Post carries a piece by Thomas Saenz, the president and general counsel of MALDEF (Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund). Saenz’s article is a response to the op/ed we published in the Daily News two weeks ago which questioned the appropriateness of invoking the Voting Rights Act of 1965 in the present debate about redrawing the supervisorial lines for Los Angeles County.

Our argument was, in a nutshell, that the law—-originally written nearly a half century ago to deal with discrimination directed at Southern Blacks—-had questionable applicability to the present day situation in the multi-racial and diverse setting of Southern California. It is a law, we said, that in its success “had [resulted in] diminished need.”

The facts of the current political scene in California reveal that Latinos are hardly a disenfranchised minority that needs the federal courts to redeem and protect their rights. We offered data—-collected by the National Association of Latino Elected Officials (e.g. Latino electeds in California increasing by 89.2% from 1996 to 2010)—-as evidence of what is transparently clear to any observer of the present political scene; most voters transcend race and ethnicity to vote for whoever they view as the best candidate. From Mayor Villaraigosa to Sheriff Baca to Assessor Noguez, Latinos can and do get elected from broad non-Latino majority districts.

Now comes Saenz to make three points in rebuttal, only one of which is on target.

In answer to our argument that the VRA has questionable applicability in present day Los Angeles County Saenz points out that the law has been amended on several occasions over the past nearly five decades and now specifically includes protections for Latino Americans. Facts we never argued against and which are, frankly, irrelevant. It has been amended and updated but Southern California is sui generis and, as courts have held, is unlike most other parts of the country.

We are the most diverse community in the country, with officials of every stripe being elected from every corner of the county—-as it should be. As we noted in our piece, it was a federal appellate court with three judges appointed by Democratic presidents who opined that there are “challenging questions regarding the applicability of voting rights doctrines developed in a fundamentally different context than the rapidly changing multi-racial and multi-ethnic community that is present day Southern California,” (Cano v Davis).  A point that seems self-evident and, in fact, controlling. This is neither the LA of 1975 nor the Alabama of 1965 and failing to acknowledge that reality reflects a view of the world filtered through a prism of frozen and ossified victimization that allows no progress to be acknowledged.

Saenz’s second major point is that the Cano decision we cited is “a ten-year-old decision written for a different era and for vastly different circumstances.” That argument implies that times have gotten worse for Latino elected officials over the past near decade since it was decided, that the Ninth Circuit’s assessment of discernable progress of Latinos from 1980’s to 2002 was a chimera. If that’s so, someone ought to tell the 1,311 elected Latino officials in California (as of 2010). Saenz’s assertion is patent nonsense to anyone without a stake in impending litigation.

The only valid point that Saenz makes is his correction of our attribution of a thoughtful op/ed against ethnic redistricting to the wrong Gloria. We incorrectly cited Supervisor Gloria Molina as the author when, in fact, it was Senator Gloria Romero. Correction duly noted and accepted—-all Glorias are not the same.

Nevertheless, Gloria “R” was right in her LA Times op/ed speaking about the MALDEF lawsuit which then sought to impose an ethnic redistricting plan,

But ultimately we trust the voters. Most citizens cast their votes the American way—-they vote for the most qualified candidate, regardless of race or gender. All we have to do is compete for votes the old fashioned way: by earning them.


Finally, Saenz’s imputation of “unconscious bias” to our mistaken attribution of the Romero op/ed is both insulting and pernicious (especially when directed at two individuals with over sixty years of experience in the civil rights field). It reflects the all-too-useful tool of accusing others of bigotry so as to claim the moral high ground. As the brilliant observer of the race and ethnic scene, John McWhorter, has observed, such promiscuous use of a serious charge has become “a recreational crutch, assuaging the insecurity at the heart of the human soul. A sad keystone of human nature is the balm of feeling superior. Gossip is a relatively innocuous manifestation;

fashioning one’s self as eternally battling a white America mired in ‘racism’ is a more noisome one.

Saenz’s assertions are both wrong and offensive, both to us and to the voters of Los Angeles County.

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