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The Gonzales Debate: Identity Politics Meets the Right Wing
Published on Sunday, November 28, 2004
The Gonzales Debate: Identity Politics Meets the Right Wing
by Carlos Villarreal

Right-wing identity politics has been an effective tool used by some Republicans to move this country to the right, and as a method, it is about to accomplish a tremendous victory in the nomination of Alberto Gonzales for Attorney General and the support for Gonzales by mainstream Latino organizations. Sadly, the confirmation of the first Latino to hold such a high office will not be a triumph, but a major defeat for people of color in this country and throughout the world.

Right-wing identity politics seeks to take advantage of racial and ethnic identity to further extreme views that, in most cases, are detrimental to a majority of people of color. It is practiced at the Republican National Convention where Latinos and African Americans are more likely to be on stage than in the audience of delegates, but the agenda is clearly one that supports corporate and property interests, while most people of color in the U.S. struggle against those interests.

Bush senior resorted to it, in part because he had little choice, when he nominated Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court. Thomas was and is an extremist, an enemy of racial justice, and even hostile to much of the Bill of Rights. Politically, there could not be a more stark difference between Thomas and the man he was replacing – Thurgood Marshall. Most African Americans and other anti-racist Americans saw through this ploy – there were strong challenges to his nomination. But the lines were blurred enough, and Thomas may soon be named Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.

How times have changed. Mr. Gonzales’ politics are as radical as Justice Thomas’ politics, but we aren’t seeing a similar outcry. In fact some key Latino organizations are running to Mr. Gonzales’ defense.

Part of the reason is because Gonzales is Latino, and the Latino population in the U.S. – at least that portion of the population whose opinions are reflected in polls – is more open to the Bush brand of conservative politics than the African American population. Exit polls show Bush garnered 44 percent of the Latino vote this year, compared with only 11 percent of the black vote. Bush has courted the Latino vote since he was Governor of Texas, taking a softer stand on issues like immigration and bilingual education than conservatives like former California Governor Pete Wilson. While staying true to its principles, the Bush camp has recognized that they must embrace the reality of a rapidly expanding Latino population in the U.S.

The other reason Gonzales is quieting many of his potential critics is because he plays right-wing identity politics better than Clarence Thomas. At the heart of his strategy is a close relationship with some key Latino organizations, including the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) and the National Council of La Raza (NCLR). Judging from these two groups’ statements supporting Gonzales, this relationship has made a critical difference. LULAC’s National President, Hector M. Flores, positively noted that “[Mr. Gonzales] was actively involved with LULAC during his time as an attorney in Houston and he has continued to be supportive of Hispanic organizations throughout his career.” Notice that it is his support for Hispanic organizations that is heralded, not his support for Hispanic people generally.

NCLR Executive Director, Janet Murguia, said “During [Mr. Gonzales’] tenure as White House Counsel, he has been one of the most accessible members of the White House staff to NCLR and other Hispanic organizations.”

The attention paid to these large Latino organizations isn’t irrelevant. But it is troubling that both of these organizations have made access to power so central to their support for Mr. Gonzales, while glossing over his faults in their press statements. Indeed, the statements from both NCLR and LULAC had little to say about Mr. Gonzales’ jurisprudence. He may support the Patriot Act, but at least these groups have a seat at the table. He may oppose the most basic of human rights for Mexican Nationals accused of capital crimes, but at least these groups will have access to the White House.

Mr. Gonzales has many faults. His legal leadership has either directly or indirectly led to the torture scandal at Abu Ghraib, the illegal detentions at Guantanamo Bay, and the worst abuses of the Patriot Act. He authored a memo that could have come out of a decades old fascist regime, arguing that the President may authorize torture under certain circumstances, up to and including the death of the victim. His older opinions for then Governor George W. Bush allowed for executions of a number of inmates in Texas who had not received due process, where there was evidence of innocence, and, in at least one case, where the inmate was mentally retarded. The victims of these policies have disproportionately been people of color, and people with few resources.

For these reasons, his nomination brought about a swift condemnation from some progressives, including the National Lawyers Guild (NLG), who urged Senators to filibuster. But this reaction has become controversial, and race politics is in the middle of the debate. LULAC National Executive Director Brent Wilkes was so defensive about Gonzales and his organization’s decision to support his nomination that he wrote a letter to the NLG calling their press release racist and demanding a public apology.

The NLG, like LULAC and NCLR, is not a perfect organization. It is large, diverse, and full of personalities with various agendas. But in this case, the NLG is taking a very brave anti-racist stand, while these mainstream Latino organizations are playing right into the hands of one of the most effective right-wing scams. LULAC and NCLR are worthy of a great deal of respect, but they should also be called out when they make a bad decision. The Guild and other organizations, like People for the American Way, and a number of grassroots Latino organizations, must not back down from their opposition to Mr. Gonzales.

Opposing Gonzales’ agenda is a stand against racial and ethnic oppression. The NLG, for instance, has worked hard to combat racial profiling and the attack on civil rights led by John Ashcroft through his Patriot Act. This has meant forging strong ties with the Arab American, South Asian and Muslim communities. These communities have been victimized by the so-called War on Terror, and Mr. Gonzales is a strong advocate of that war that is sweeping up thousands of innocent people of color and yielding few, if any, results against actual terrorists. These policies may not have affected the Latino community (particularly the middle-class and upper-class Latino communities) as much as others, but these are racist policies that the Guild has strongly opposed.

Mr. Gonzales has done a better job protecting the mostly white, male, wealthy politicians who have rewarded him than defending the rights of those communities of color who have suffered under the Bush regime. This is exactly why conservatives in power today love Mr. Gonzales so much, and why they have embraced this new brand of identity politics. He has protected Mr. Bush, Mr. Cheney, and others in powerful positions. He is far more effective in a post Civil Rights era at promoting right-wing ideals than rich, white men, ever could be.

Mr. Gonzales' nomination and probable rise to the position of Attorney General has been heralded as a huge success for Latinos by a few organizations that normally don’t take such disappointing positions. But the fact that Mr. Gonzales would be the 1st Latino in such a prominent position is reason to mourn, not to celebrate. It means that conservatives, who will promote an agenda that will be harmful to most Latinos and other people of color, will continue their rise to power and abuse of that power. Hopefully those organizations opposing Gonzales’ nomination will not be confused by allegations of racism and recognize the absolute importance of opposing his nomination based on ideals of ant-racism and the basic principles of human rights.

Carlos Villarreal is the Executive Director of the National Lawyers Guild San Francisco Bay Area Chapter and a native of South Texas.


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