BY ESTHER J. CEPEDA, Washington Post Writers Group
CHICAGO -- Just as tone-deafness is a bipartisan ailment, so is hubris -- and I suspect some Hispanics are flying perilously close to the sun.
I’ve lost count of all the prideful, boasting and sometimes menacing commentaries, blog posts and social media comments about Hispanics’ role in President Obama’s re-election.
It started out as simple joy that Latinos actually turned out in large numbers, proving decisive in what seemed like a neck-and-neck battle going into Election Day. This alone, after months of fretting about voter suppression and disillusionment, was reasonable cause for celebration. But it quickly devolved into the same true-but-still-unhelpful rhetoric that has so far failed to deliver the respect Latinos hope for in both society and politics.
In the days after the election, the litany of demands began in earnest and just kept coming. "Time for Obama to deliver for Latinos" and "Obama won on the backs of Latinos, he owes us one," read two headlines. Another blared: "Payback Time for Hispanics?"
Then the Pew Hispanic Center released data projecting that the Hispanic electorate is likely to double to about 40 million eligible voters by 2030. All the talk about the so-called "sleeping giant" started sounding as though the giant woke up feeling more vengeful than gentle.
But before we get too full of ourselves, Latinos need to put this most recent victory into historical context. Back in mid-November of 2010 -- two years after Latinos were instrumental in getting Obama elected the first time -- I wrote this in the weeks leading up to the most recent failure of the federal DREAM Act:
"‘You owe us’ is not exactly a compelling argument for legislative action, but this is really all that some immigration reform activists have left to goose Democrats to make something -- anything -- happen during the lame-duck session of Congress."
I went on to say that the chest-thumping and chit-calling that followed after Latinos helped Harry Reid hold on to his Senate seat in 2010 would probably be as ineffective at getting real, bipartisan immigration reform passed as the demands to stop deportations and legalize all illegal immigrants had been in the previous five years.
Ironically, it turned out the DREAM Act got enough Republican votes to pass but Reid and the rest of the Democratic leadership failed to keep five of their own from voting against ending debate on the bill. And it tanked.
In other words, we’ve been "owed" before.
Sure, it might feel good to gloat after years of hearing outspoken representatives from the nativist wing of the Republican Party call Hispanics a plague on our country’s values and making little differentiation between legal Hispanics and illegal immigrants -- not that legal status warrants comparing a group of people to wild animals who need to be culled from our population.
If crowing really is necessary, let’s get it out of our systems quickly. Two wrongs don’t make a right -- waving census statistics and dashing off hot-headed missives that sound a lot like "Ha, ha white people, you’re in for it now!" isn’t going to serve anyone’s political interests, and the self-puffery turns off other minorities, too.
The last thing our country needs right now is more divisiveness resulting from the misperception that all ethnic groups cackle diabolically every time a GOP operative says that older, white Republican voters are "dying off."
The people who have spent the better part of the last two years trying to get non-Hispanics to understand that immigration is not the Latino community’s most important voting issue -- but that the tone of this debate is what really matters -- should modulate their own voices. The focus must be on meeting the challenges ahead with grace, intelligence and a shot of humility.
The ultimate sign of having officially "arrived" is that others proclaim it for you so you don’t have to make the announcement yourself. Congratulations, we are there: Latinos are a mighty political force to be reckoned with and every white political pundit and voting expert on news talk shows has been saying so for weeks. But what comes next is what really matters.
Moving forward, tone will be important for both sides. It will ultimately determine whether the post-election opportunity for Latino voter respect and inclusion leads to more cooperation between parties or whether the dialogue on hot-button issues like immigration devolves into the tired old roles of victim and oppressor, or worse -- bully versus bully.
Esther J. Cepeda's email address is email@example.com
Copyright Washington Post Writers Group 2012