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Racism isn't just a GOP problem

By Ruben Navarrette, CNN Contributor
April 17, 2014 -- Updated 1328 GMT (2128 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Ruben Navarrette: Anti-immigration Republicans are spoiling the Grand Old Party
  • Navarrette: Some Democrats say race is a reason for failure of immigration reform
  • He says racism isn't limited to one party; it never has been in history
  • Navarrette: There are anti-Latino elements in Democratic and Republican parties

Editor's note: Ruben Navarrette is a CNN contributor and a nationally syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group. Follow him on Twitter: @rubennavarrette. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- There are two groups of Republicans: Those who pander to nativists by encouraging anti-Latino prejudice and exploiting the fear and anxiety that come from changing demographics, and those who tolerate the first group.

Both groups are spoiling the Grand Old Party. And they're making life too easy for Democrats, who -- while never particularly good at addressing the needs and concerns of Latino voters -- have lately excelled in the neglect department. The more Latinos are antagonized by Republicans, the more they get ignored by Democrats.

Ain't that swell? The result for America's largest minority is a political paradox, where the media insists this community has tremendous power while those of us within the community know the opposite is true. We're not getting stronger. We're getting weaker.

Ruben Navarrette Jr.
Ruben Navarrette Jr.

Such is the misfortune of today's Latino voter, and it's the goal of Democrats to bring it up. When you don't have much to offer, you cling to what little you have -- even if it's just a bumper sticker slogan: "Vote Democrat. Because we're not as bad as Republicans."

Look at what happened with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California and Rep. Steve Israel, D-New York, when he made remarks about Republicans and racism on CNN's "State of the Union" on Sunday.

And recently, Pelosi was asked by reporters if she thought race factors into how Republicans deal with the Obama administration.

Pivoting to a hot topic, Pelosi responded: "I think race has something to do with the fact that they're not bringing up an immigration bill."

Inside Politics: Ukraine, Sebelius, GOP

First, that took chutzpah. This is the same Nancy Pelosi who, when she wielded the gavel from 2007 to 2009, deliberately kept immigration off the congressional agenda. This was no secret. Her top lieutenant at the time, Rep. Rahm Emanuel, who talked openly about his reluctance to engage the issue, went so far as to label immigration the "third rail" of American politics.

Did the Democrats' failure to bring up immigration during the two years they controlled both houses of Congress also have something to do with race?

It seems only fair to ask, given what Pelosi said about the GOP. The real reason Democrats put immigration on the back burner wasn't racial but political. Labor leaders give lip service to backing the idea of giving legal status to the undocumented, but the rank-and-file aren't sold. Democrats are no more eager to divide their party than Republicans are to divide theirs.

Democrats benefit from Republican missteps. If the GOP acts as an obstacle, it saves the Democrats from having to play the villain.

Pelosi is right about race -- or more precisely, ethnicity, since Latinos aren't a race -- having a lot to do with why House Republicans won't bring up an immigration bill.

Since most immigrants to the United States, both legal and illegal, are now Latino, Republicans are afraid that -- whichever way the debate goes -- they'll be painted as "anti-Latino," which will lead to another beating at the ballot box. Besides, if they restart the immigration debate, Republicans can count on someone in their party saying something idiotic or incendiary that will turn off Latinos.

Then along comes Israel. When asked by reporters to comment on what Pelosi had said (notice how helpful the liberal media can be in advancing the narrative that Republicans are hostile to minorities), Israel said, "To a significant extent, the Republican base does have elements that are animated by racism. And that's unfortunate."

Israel has a point. Many Americans approach the immigration debate by succumbing to racism. They have for 250 years, starting when Benjamin Franklin railed against the Germans in the mid-1700s. That's a ready made constituency. In the last 20 years, a faction of the GOP has stepped up to service it. And whereas, a hundred years ago, the political piñata would have been the Irish or the Italians, today it's the Latinos.

Yet, that's only half the story. Here's the rest: Racism isn't limited to one party. It never has been.

Today, you'll find anti-Latino elements of the Democratic Party. Democratic politicians are careful not to say anything ugly. But rank-and-file Democratic voters are more uninhibited with their comments. Travel the country, as I have, and you'll hear the same remarks from Democrats that you hear from Republicans -- about how Latino immigrants are defiant, dangerous or deficient. This is why you see resistance to legalizing the undocumented from normally liberal voters in the South, Midwest and Northeast.

Listen up, Latinos. We don't have political power, and we're suffering through a litany of bad choices. But there's a way to improve our lot, and it has nothing to do with demographics. We have to avoid oversimplifying our predicament by blaming only Republicans for the poisonous mood of the immigration debate. Over the years, leading up to the Obama administration's dubious record of deporting 2 million people in five years, Democrats have done their share of damage.

Are racism and nativism part of the immigration debate? Of course they are. But the antidote to such bigotry isn't tolerance or open-mindedness. It's respect. And there is only one way for Latinos to get it, and that's by staying in play and making both parties compete for our votes.

That's not politics. It's common sense. And oftentimes, one doesn't have anything to do with the other.

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