It is difficult not to see the mostly white presidential field as partly a product of the media’s lack of interest in Hispanics and candidates of color
[Originally published in The Guardian January 6, 2020]
About a year ago, Julián Castro announced he was running for president in front of an adoring hometown West San Antonio crowd. He was bursting with optimism that his campaign would serve “the people”, as well as solidify Latinx voters as a national political force.
On Thursday, a video announcing Castro’s decision to withdraw as a Democratic presidential candidate. The video began with footage of that same San Antonio event, only to conclude that he had “determined it simply wasn’t our time.” While it’s possible that it isn’t quite the right time for Castro, a 45-year-old former San Antonio mayor and Obama cabinet appointee, we’re left to wonder whether the message was actually that it’s not a Latinx candidate’s time, or even any candidate of color’s time, in a tumultuous campaign against a president that most Democrats consider a “clear and present danger”.
Castro’s departure leaves a Democratic field with only two candidates of color – New Jersey senator Cory Booker, who wasn’t even allowed to participate in December’s debate, and Andrew Yang, whose outsider campaign seems to have more to do with tech entrepreneurship and the appeal of universal basic income.
It is difficult not to see the departures of Castro and California senator Kamala Harris, as well as Booker’s struggle to stay in the race, as at least partly a product of the media’s lack of interest in candidates of color. Predictably, many pundits have preferred to focus on whether the centrist candidacies of Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg are more likely to beat Trump than the leftist proposals of Warren and Sanders.
Castro and Booker have been further hurt by Democratic National Committee “threshold” rules that left them out of the recent debates. The rules, which require candidates earn 4-5% support in qualifying polls, as well as a minimum number of donations from a minimum number of states, seem to have discriminated against candidates of color who have a narrower base of support or a tougher run at fundraising.
Castro himself has criticized the threshold rules, as well as the primary system that prioritizes mostly white states like Iowa and New Hampshire. His criticism, shared by Booker, reveals the considerable irony that these rules have been presided over by Democratic National Committee chair Tom Perez, who is Dominican-American and who defeated Pete Buttigieg to get the job.
Castro was also unable to gain traction by moving “to the left”. Despite being branded as a “Latino Obama”, he attempted to take a more activist approach. He successfully moved his fellow candidates to his proposal to decriminalize border crossings, and he spoke frequently about police brutality against African Americans. When he announced a plan to end hunger, he took the opportunity to argue that the political focus on the middle class came at the expense of poor Americans.
But Castro seemed to be hurt by his attacks on Joe Biden, which some saw as ageism, and the fact that his platform of identity politics and social class grievances didn’t fit into the debate between the center and left wings of the Democratic party. Also, his support of a $15 minimum wage and tax increase on the rich didn’t distinguish him from Warren and Sanders.
As far as his attempt to command Latinx loyalty in the presidential race, his San Antonio narrative, though warm and fuzzy enough, did not transcend the problem of Latinx political regionalism. It was a strong move to link the hate politics directed at both Mexican/Central American immigrants with the Trump administration’s neglect of Puerto Rico, but only somewhat resonant in perpetual swing-state Florida, still wildly in flux between Cuban/Venezuelan anti-communists and more moderate Latinx constituencies.
In his 2018 review of my book, Latinx: The New Force in American Politics and Culture, Castro riffed on whether, in the eyes of America, Chicanos, and by extension Latinx, “even exist”. His campaign’s unfortunate end reveals how America’s inability to recognize or understand Latinx people, or the value of a Latinx candidate, persists.
Candidate Castro tried to forge a modified identity politics that was seemingly overwhelmed by the rapidly accelerating struggle between Trump’s white nationalist/tax-cutting Republicanism and the uncertain future of the Democratic party. He might have had made more of a splash if he had gone full-bore Ocasio-Cortez and tried to usurp some of Sanders’/Warren’s support, but, lacking her improbable fusion of millennials and working-class people of color, he couldn’t quite form a viable coalition.
When Castro, some new Latinx or minority rising star, or perhaps Ocasio-Cortez can successfully do that, then maybe it will finally be “our time”.