How He Can

By Diego von Vacano
Wednesday, February 6, 2008; 1:00 PM

The Democratic race may be far from over, but last night's results show one thing for certain: Hispanics overwhelmingly support Hillary Clinton. In California, Clinton won on the strength of the Latino vote, and it also helped her in Arizona and New Mexico. Her success is due in part to her positions on the issues and her broad appeal to the lower and working class, where the bulk of Latinos remain. She may have also benefited from Barack Obama's failure to engage Hispanic Americans on the issue of race.

It is unfortunate but true: There is some suspicion, competition and uneasiness between Latinos and African Americans. To the extent that Obama either ignores race or simply accepts the label of "black," even though he is of mixed race, he will not appeal to Latinos. But Obama can improve his standing among Hispanics by better emphasizing how his own understanding of race matches theirs.

Throughout his career, Obama has tried to follow Martin Luther King's dream -- that of a nation where people "will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." In this dream of a postracial America, what matters is human dignity, not superficial racial characteristics. Most people in America, however, have not yet moved away from the dual paradigm of race. This has created unfair expectations about what Obama should be like or what he should do.

There is a way out of this racial conundrum: to point to the new racial paradigms that are becoming more salient as Hispanics become more prominent in the United States.

Obama's insistence on treating race as a secondary matter is morally laudable. Yet most people rely on their putative "race" to make sense of the world and of their own identities. Since the arrival of the Spanish to the Americas in the 15th century, the idea of racial difference has shaped moderns sensibilities. Europeans came to define themselves against the Amerindian or African "savages." Eminent philosophers such as Immanuel Kant posited the superiority of whites over nonwhites, as did great statesmen such as Thomas Jefferson. In reaction, some great African American minds, such as W.E.B. Du Bois, responded by arguing that blacks "as a race, have a contribution to make to civilization and humanity, which no other race can make." Thus did America's view of race become binary -- you were either white or black.

One way out of this old, often noxious paradigm is to ask Americans to re-imagine the way they understand race. Obama, with his visionary approach and inspiring rhetoric, could be the man to do this.

Hispanics are now the largest ethnic minority in the United States, having recently surpassed African Americans in numbers. Obama can learn from their perspective on race. He should borrow the idea of mestizaje from the Latino tradition.

This idea is the key racial notion in Hispanic culture, and it stands for the mixing of races. It argues that all people are of mixed racial descent, and that there is no "pure" race. We are all the synthesis of many racial origins, which often lie below the surface of accidental skin colors. In a country as diverse and fluid as the United States, this synthetic paradigm of race makes sense.

From the Latino perspective, Obama is a mestizo, just like all of us. Hispanics, who are often treated as a single "race," in fact can be of Amerindian, Spanish, African, German, Japanese or any other ethnic origin. African Americans often have roots that can be traced to Africa, Native American nations and Europe as well. And "whites," who we often assume are a monolithic group, in fact can be of a combination of English, German, Irish, Italian, Scandinavian, or other European origins, with possible ancestry also in Africa, Asia, or Native America.

As the great Mexican philosopher José Vasconcelos wrote in 1925 in his work "The Cosmic Race," we are all members of "a synthetic race." If Obama more forcefully embraces this notion, he will go far in gaining the Latino vote -- for he will show that that he understands that Latinos, too, are part of one large American family.

The writer is an assistant professor of political science at Texas A&M University and author of "The Art of Power: Machiavelli, Nietzsche and the Making of Aesthetic Political Theory."


© 2008 The Washington Post Company