photo by Gage Skidmore
I always call electoral campaigns “silly season.” Jeb Bush’s ethnic identity crisis is a case in point.
The former Florida governor is married to a woman who was born in Mexico, and his son identifies as Latino. Bush speaks Spanish fluently, and he and his wife lived in Venezuela for two years before settling in Florida. He has long identified himself as sympathetic to the Hispanic community and its issues. He supports comprehensive immigration reform and has distanced himself from fellow Republicans with extreme stances on the issue. This is not insignificant for a potential GOP presidential candidate, and that is presumably why some Democrats want to drive a wedge between Bush and those Hispanic voters.
Thus the kerfuffle that arose following the revelation that Bush indicated he was Hispanic on his 2009 Florida Voter Registration Application. The story broke in The New York Times, which obtained the application in question from the Miami-Dade County Elections Department.
Why did Bush check the box? Not even he knows, apparently. A spokeswoman for the former governor had no explanation when contacted by The Times. Yet Bush himself took to Twitter to concede the obvious: He goofed. “Don’t think I’ve fooled anyone!” he tweeted. Indeed, Bush didn’t fool anybody, nor is there any evidence he was he trying to do so.
But what does being part of any ethnic group actually entail? If Bush and his wife moved back to Venezuela, how long would he have to live there, speaking only Spanish, before he could call genuinely call himself Hispanic, if ever? And if he returned to the U.S., when would he lose this theoretical Hispanic identity? When he crossed the border? After one year? Ten years?
The boundaries of Hispanic and Latino identities, and where and whether the two overlap, is especially complicated. If it is defined by your family’s geographic origins, how far back do you go? If it is defined by language, where do you draw the line? Some Latinos and Latinas strongly object to the term Hispanic, while in some parts of the country, Hispanic is the preferred term. Others use the terms interchangeably. Some people think of themselves as racially white or black, but ethnically Hispanic, as updates to the U.S. Census reflect. This is not to argue that Bush is Hispanic after all - he is not, and does not in seriousness claim to be - but it illustrates the point that ethnic and racial categories are seldom cut-and-dried.
The racial identities of President Obama’s parents are well known, yet nobody sensible objects if he identifies primarily as African-American. Elizabeth Warren famously claimed that she had Native American ancestry. Was John F. Kennedy perpetrating a lie when he claimed rhetorically, “Ich bin ein Berliner?”
I take great pleasure in visiting Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood, where I can soak up the culture and even read most of the signs in shop windows. But if I open my mouth to speak a few words of Spanish, I immediately make Michael Bloomberg sound like Miguel de Cervantes. Like Jeb Bush, I’m not fooling anybody; I just fail to fool them a lot faster than he does.
Democrats, however, seem to think they are the only ones with a license to practice ethnic identity politics in any measure. A small but vocal group have lambasted Bush, characterizing the incident as an attempt to appropriate a marginalized culture in a bid for votes. The Florida Democratic Party has even suggested Bush’s mistake might have amounted to a felony, though legal experts have made clear that without intention to deceive, it is unlikely Bush is in danger of legal repercussions. The Florida Democrats have graciously said they do not intend to issue a formal complaint over the incident. (A complaint that is rejected would kill the issue, which they clearly intend to ride for all it is worth.)
Racial and ethnic identity politics have an innocent, even a beneficial side when we celebrate and embrace our own cultures, and celebrate those cultures we are invited to share with our neighbors and families. But they have an evil side too, when they are used to divide or to oppress or even to mislead for personal benefit, as was arguably the case with Warren.
Jeb Bush was going to get the same right to vote no matter which box he checked. Despite arguments to the contrary, it is clear he neither benefitted from his stray checkmark nor intended to do so. As he has said, he wasn’t about to fool anybody.
The problem with Bush’s registration form is not his answer to the ethnicity question. The question itself has no legitimate place in the voting process. When it comes to casting ballots in Florida and the other 49 states, the only box you need to check is the one that says: American.