The Respectability Politics of Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio

Rubio Cruz

From left to right, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas (Michael Vadon/Flickr)

In a recent New York Times op-ed, “Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio Made History. Didn’t You Hear?” Robert Suro attempts to question the media’s silence about Ted Cruz’s and Marco Rubio’s historic Iowa caucus results — Cruz as the overall winner, and the two Latinos winning half of the caucus voters surpassed the results for any other Latino candidate in any previous U.S. presidential contest. Suro questioned, “How is that not being celebrated as historic or at least worth a headline for a day or two?”

Suro laments that the answer to his question is “not that complicated,” because neither candidate behaves like a Latino politician. Neither candidate claims to speak for nor on behalf of Latinos, neither receives a significant support from Latino voters, and neither supports the legalization of undocumented immigrants.

Other writers like David French of National Review and Carlos Eire of Babalú Blog are claiming that racial identity had nothing to do with Cruz’s and Rubio’s showings. The commentators are more than happy that the media is not commenting on Cruz and Rubio as Latino victors. Both writers see Cruz’s and Rubio’s Iowa results as a middle finger to the left. Both commentators argue that the white liberal progressive left is responsible for creating identity politics. These identity politics are responsible for creating racial and ethnic divisions between Americans and preventing diversity of political views among people of color.

While Suro of the Times wants the media to make this Latino first visible as a political victory, National Review and Babulú want us to celebrate the point that conservatives are not racist due to their support of Latinos. However, I find these writers’ interpretations for the cause of the political rise of these two Cuban Americans to be incomplete

We are not celebrating their victories as a Latino first because Cruz, Rubio and their political backers wanted it that way. They don’t want to be recognized as Latinos. Both are attempting to become leaders of a country where a proud Latino identity has been equated with the radical left or “illegal” immigrants. They wanted to present a de-Latinized version of their identities in order to appear respectable to whites who believe the mere discussion of racial identity is racism itself. They don’t want to make white conservatives uncomfortable that they are perhaps a different ethnically from them.

Respectability politics is a source of constant discussion within the black community. It refers to how African Americans self-police propriety in order to better present themselves to white mainstream and show how blacks are just like whites. The danger of respectability politics is that it is a performance for whites to accept us as people of color on their moral terms. But such performances do little to change the structures that value some races over others, or bring dissenting views into the discussion.

Black commentators have not been afraid to speak about the role of black respectability during this primary season. For example, Jamil Smith attributes Carson’s November 2015 rise in the polls to Carson’s own embrace of respectability politics.

But Latino commentators from the left and the right have not engaged in similar discussions about two of their own presidential candidates.

One of the most obvious forms of the respectability politics of Cruz and Rubio has been in regard to the narrative of their own parents’ path to the United States.

Marco Rubio’s campaign website states “Marco’s parents came to the United States legally looking for economic opportunity.” He even released their immigration and naturalization paperwork. How is being transparent about the immigration paperwork and letting the public know that his parents came here “legally” related to respectability politics? As you have heard throughout the campaign, the only type of immigrants that the GOP candidates have supported are ones that are “legal” and want to be “Americans.” This type of respectability politics is about putting a line in the sand that some immigrants came in the “right way” and that other immigrants came in the “wrong way.” That is, there are “good immigrants” and there are “bad immigrants.” Rubio wants to ensure that all (white) Americans know that his immigrant family came in the “good immigrant” way.

In a recent Latino Rebels post, “The Latinidad of Ted Cruz,” Joseph Laughon argues that Cruz is Latino because he says he’s Cuban. He is quoted as saying: “I am Cuban, Italian and Irish.” Cruz decided to refer to his background — instead of the more encompassing and politically contentious label “Latino.” To identify himself as Cuban is the political equivalent of identifying himself as Irish or Italian, whereas to identify himself as Latino would slap the face of white conservatives who do not want to deal with the label.

Cruz is far more insidious when it comes to respectability politics. As the media and Latinos on the left continue to gasp at Trump’s comments about Mexicans as “criminals” and “rapists,” Cruz has gotten away with saying the same thing. He told Iowa radio host Simon Conway that Democrats “support amnesty. They support releasing criminal illegal aliens.” The major difference is that Cruz’s tone and language was more moderated and hence respectable to whites than Trump’s. Nevertheless, the implication of his words was the same: “illegals are criminals.” He ensures that he, as a Cuban ethnic, will retain social distance from the Mexican immigrants that share his Latino ethnicity. That’s how respectability politics works. It ensures cleavages between individuals in a marginalized group, so the one engaging in respectability politics will be seen as “different” and “better.”

Suro, Fench and Eire lead you to believe that the nonattention on Cruz and Rubio were related to the marginalization of Latino Republicans who don’t fit the Latino political mold. Essentially, Cruz and Rubio have won this battle. They wanted to ensure that their non-discussion of their Latino ethnicity would keep extremely conservative whites during the primary comfortable with them. The lack of discussion of their immigrant and Latino identities also opened up discussions that the left only wants Latinos if they think exactly like them.

In the end, respectability politics won’t win them the war. When the general election comes around, Latinos will remember them as the Cuban Americans who did not fight for them or associate with them during the anti-immigrant primary. Respectability politics won’t save them.

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You can follow Christina Saenz-Alcántara on Twitter @ctsaenz.

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