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RUBEN NAVARRETTE JR.: In California, quest for diversity sparks division

In 2016, CNN contributor Van Jones credited Donald Trump’s election to a “white-lash.” Just four years later, the fact that California Secretary of State Alex Padilla is headed to the U.S. Senate has sparked what I would call a “black-lash.”

Both of these phenomena are based on fear of change and concern by some that they’ll lose their place in line.

Still, in a multicultural America, the Black-white paradigm is as stale as week-old bread. Or, because we’re talking about California, maybe a tortilla or Chinese milk bread. In 2020, the two most important groups in the state are Latinos (the largest) and Asians (the fastest growing).

According to 2019 census figures, whites account for 36.5 percent of the state’s population, compared with Latinos, who make up 39.4 percent. African Americans make up only 6.5 percent, while Asians account for 16 percent.

In the Golden State, speaking in terms of Black and white is as outdated as arguing over North and South 157 years after Gettysburg.

Out West, there is tension in the rainbow.

Gov. Gavin Newsom got to pick who should fill the soon-to-be-vacant U.S. Senate seat currently occupied by Kamala Harris, who was recently promoted to be our next vice president. However, some African Americans consider the seat their private property. They made it clear that a seat held by a Black woman ought to be forever held by a Black woman.

Every argument was more inventive than the one before.

One Black commentator argued that, because African Americans make up fewer than 7 percent of the state’s population, a Black person should get the seat because he or she might not win a statewide election.

I see. Latinos make up only 6.3 percent of the population of Iowa. As a Mexican American, I should move to Des Moines and demand that the governor appoint me to the next vacant Senate seat.

The two African American women who were thought to be in the running for the California Senate seat were U.S. Rep. Karen Bass, of Los Angeles, and U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee, of Oakland.

Neither Democrat had been elected statewide. Newsom wanted someone who could hold the seat when it’s on the ballot again in 2022.

Guess who has been elected statewide? Alex Padilla. A son of Mexican immigrants who graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Padilla has a killer resume. It includes 25 years in politics with stints on the Los Angeles City Council and in the California Senate before becoming California secretary of state.

Look up the word “qualified” in the dictionary, and you’ll see this guy’s picture next to it.

Latinos needed this win. After going to good colleges and gaining the right experience only to be passed over for less qualified white people, we needed reassurance that the game wasn’t rigged.

Padilla will be the first Latino to represent California in the U.S. Senate — and only the 10th Latino to serve in the upper chamber since it was first convened in 1789. Black leaders usually applaud historic firsts. Not this time.

San Francisco Mayor London Breed, who is Black, called the appointment “a real blow to the African American community.”

Such pettiness is a real blow to Latinos, who have always been there for African Americans. We’ve marched alongside them in protests and pickets, worked beside them in fields and factories and been discriminated against with them by white people in Texas, Arizona and California, which, in the 1950s, had their own version of “Juan Crow.”

Kerman Maddox, a Black political consultant who works with Democrats, called the move “a terribly insensitive decision” given that the United States is in the midst of a delicate racial dialogue.

Seriously? This country has been trying to make heads or tails out of that dialogue since 1619. Should everything else be on hold until it is resolved — which is to say never?

Newsom appointed Shirley Weber, a Black state lawmaker, to replace Padilla as secretary of state. But that only seemed to make matters worse. “When I heard the news about the secretary of state appointment, my anger meter went from disappointment to being downright angry,” Maddox said.

Now I’m downright angry. Maybe Latinos were wrong to think of African Americans as allies. We assumed they had our backs, that they would share the spoils and that they would step aside when our turn came. That didn’t happen.

Remember what our mothers taught us? History is being made in California. If African Americans can’t say anything nice about that, they shouldn’t say anything at all.

Ruben Navarrette’s email address is ruben@rubennavarrette.com. His daily podcast, “Navarrette Nation,” is available through every podcast app.

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