That barely begins to describe the political turmoil in Southern California that is pinching one of the most sensitive of all political and cultural nerves: blacks versus Latinos.
Ground zero is the 37th Congressional District, one of the poorest in the state, which stretches from South Los Angeles to Long Beach and neighboring suburbs. The recent death of Democratic Rep. Juanita Millender-McDonald is forcing a special primary election next month, and Latinos are claiming their right to take over the traditionally black House seat.
Blacks account for 25 percent of the district’s registered voters, compared with 21 percent for Latinos. But the Latino voting-age population outnumbers blacks by more than 13 percentage points. Latinos want it, and blacks are nervous about possibly losing it.
The stakes for both ethnic groups are huge. The black community must keep the House seat to maintain its political clout in Washington. Hispanics must spur the low-voting Latino population to register and vote, as well as earn national political influence that matches its population growth.
What is happening in California is the result of major demographic changes that are rippling across the country. In addition to this Long Beach-based district, there are 27 House Districts with “minority” majorities, with Hispanic eligible voters outnumbering African-Americans. The 2010 Census is expected to realign congressional districts to reflect some of those changes.
It is an uncomfortable topic for members of the minority caucuses on Capitol Hill, who would rather work together for civil rights than fight over its political rewards.
Yet there is an undercurrent of tension between both ethnic groups at the local level that comes down to one basic point: Blacks led the civil rights struggles that are now benefiting the faster-growing Latino population.
Conservatives who oppose expanded immigration rights openly play to the rift by questioning whether Latino immigrants are taking away low-paying jobs that might otherwise be occupied by blacks. As a result, the black and Hispanic congressional caucuses have teamed up to study the impact of possible immigration reform on their voters.
Still, the battle over a traditionally black seat in California has become a question over which minority can best represent the diverse district.
This confrontation has been a long time coming. After the 2000 Census, the total Hispanic population in Millender-McDonald’s district was 57 percent. But in order to protect her and two other black caucus members in neighboring Democratic districts, the Democratic state legislature drew a new map that divided the Hispanic population into separate districts. Otherwise, Millender-McDonald’s district could have gone to a Hispanic.
The national demographic changes are “part of a natural maturation,” though perhaps not yet easily accepted, said California political analyst Sherry Bebitch Jeffe. “I cannot imagine there will not be a real fight” in the upcoming California election.
It’s also possible that a white candidate could emerge in the June 26 primary and Aug. 21 special general election for Millender-McDonald’s seat.
But Baca said that if a Hispanic cannot win, then it should be a black candidate. “Those are going to be the two that will fight for civil rights,” he said.