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A Diverse Nation Demands Collaboration

There are opportunities for both Republicans and Democrats to focus on building coalitions across racial lines.

October 14, 2019

This piece was originally published by the New York Times on September 12.

Our country’s demographics keep changing fast, and major shifts have already happened in places across the nation — including in Texas, where the Democratic presidential candidates will hold their debate on Thursday night.

Texas is one of five states without a majority racial or ethnic group. And Houston, home to Texas Southern University, where the candidates will face off, is 45 percent Latino and only 25 percent non-Hispanic white.

So goes the nation as racial and ethnic diversity spreads. Next year’s census is expected to show that whites have become a minority in the overall population under 18 years old, a point already reached among those in the age group under 15. This postmillennial generation will be eligible to vote soon enough.

As the country slowly but steadily moves on from the era of one dominant racial group and one minority group, there are opportunities for both Republicans and Democrats to focus on building coalitions across racial lines.

To date, our politics hasn’t met the challenge. President Trump and the Republican Party have responded with an unworkable model: tamping down the political power of emerging populations, stirring anxiety among white Americans and shutting down borders. The multiracial reality is that even when minorities become a majority, they still often lose.

Democrats have made more efforts than Republicans to change this reality, but there’s room for improvement. The candidates at the debate on Thursday should examine the role racism plays in the disparities in income and education that exist for blacks and Latinos even in progressive and majority-nonwhite states like California. They should respond to the low turnout of Latino and Asian voters nationwide, and their dismal share of elected positions. And they should take the opportunity to take a hard look at Texas, where protracted struggles over power have played out in lawsuits over discriminatory voter identification laws, overly aggressive voter purges and gerrymandering that denies fair legislative and congressional maps to the state’s large nonwhite communities.

There is one other promising path, and I saw it in Houston. As a reporter in that city 20 years ago, I observed a model for avoiding the zero-sum game that some politicians depict to frighten audiences and to win votes.

profiled three businessmen — a black architect, a Latino engineer and a white construction contractor — who had joined forces to help elect Houston’s first black mayor, Lee P. Brown. Even then, no single racial group held a majority in the city, and the businessmen put race aside to come together for mutual benefit. They saw what could be gained by pooling their money and political clout behind the same candidate — in their case, the city building contracts they hoped would come their way if they backed a winner.

Theirs was a pragmatic calculation; they weren’t close friends. The white businessman, Richard Lewis, who owned a construction company, described himself a “Republican from the womb.” Mr. Lewis told me he fell behind Mr. Brown, a Democrat who supported affirmative action, because the city’s demographics, with its black-Latino combined majority, made it clear that a Republican could not win.

“I wanted to be in a position of influence,” he told me.

Such multiracial coalitions require cross-racial dexterity and entail some compromises and conflicts in seeking alliances. They may not be permanent. But they hold the promise of stability and new strengths in reaching a middle ground between assimilation and ethnic divisions: shared power built on common interests.

“There are a lot of things you can learn” from working in these coalitions, said Richard Castañeda, the Mexican-American engineer, who is now 73 and retired in San Antonio.

Rather than racist overreaction to population trends, how much more constructive to remind concerned voters that power is not just about the numbers. Since 2000, Latinos in Houston have helped elect two white mayors and a second black mayor, the incumbent Sylvester Turner. Political scientists say Latinos lag in voter registration and turnout.

People participate when they feel empowered, research shows. “In places where nonwhites are a majority, politicians and organizations are much more likely to mobilize and engage issues of concern to minority voters, boosting their turnout substantially,” said Bernard L. Fraga, author of the book “The Turnout Gap: Race, Ethnicity, and Political Inequality in a Diversifying America.”

The path to the presidency can be paved with plans that pay more attention to how to inspire more voters, address disparities among demographic groups and foster collaboration in elections, in drawing voting maps, in getting an accurate census that counts everyone. Through our democracy, we have the tools to make a transformative change that takes advantage of the new racial dynamics of more interwoven and multicultural communities as an opportunity to deliver better results for all our citizens — stronger economic interests, better civic engagement, a more participatory system. It can serve as an example to other democracies grappling with their own population shifts.

Getting mired in toxic distractions helps no one, of any race.