Race hypocrisy a factor in Boston’s mayoral election
When Annissa Essaibi George won one of two spots in the race to become Boston’s first woman mayor, everyone thought the main campaign issues would be strengthening the city’s budget, confronting the COVID-19 pandemic and improving Boston’s schools. Instead, the debate has focused on race.
Since 1630, every Boston mayor has been a white male. But the city will, on Nov. 2, elect its first woman mayor. More importantly, the next mayor will also be a “woman of color.” But Essaibi George — who is half Tunisian and half Polish — has been forced to defend her Arab heritage and status as a woman of color. Her opponent, Michelle Wu, is the daughter of Taiwanese immigrants. Heritage has become a key issue in the nonpartisan election, but because Essaibi George is “only” half Arab, half Polish, she is being criticized for claiming to be a woman of color.
It is not enough to be a woman candidate shattering the glass ceiling that has held women in America back. The same thing happened to another high-profile woman in Massachusetts politics — Sen. Elizabeth Warren. She was criticized for claiming to be part Native American and, therefore, a person of color. The controversy undermined Warren’s candidacy in the race to be the Democratic nominee for president last year. Warren said she based her claim on her parents and a DNA analysis, something anyone can do.
Being a person of color is beneficial in American elections because many voters are swayed not only by a candidate’s politics, but also by their ethnicity, religion or race.
For Essaibi George, being half-Arab through a Tunisian father makes her a woman of color. But for her critics, half is not enough. It could also be that the answer stems from racism against people who are Polish and white.
The preliminary election contest was a rainbow of race. Wu and George defeated six other challengers, including two white men, one African-American male, one Hispanic male, and two African-American women. Maybe that was the real irritation for some voters: An Asian and an Arab won the run-off slots.
No one has challenged Wu’s status as a woman of color. Asian-Americans were, for many years, excluded because of their skin color. In fact, laws passed in the late 19th century discriminated against them and even banned them from moving to the US. The “Yellow Peril” laws discriminated against Chinese immigrants who were being brought into the country to build the nation’s railroads, ultimately resulting in the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.
Unlike today, being a person of color back then — whether of Asian origin or an African-American — truly was a peril and they often faced violence. The pendulum started to swing back in the 1960s, when civil rights laws were passed to end discriminatory policies against African-Americans. Those civil rights laws also provided legal protections for other races, including Arabs.
Since then, as “minority” populations have grown in size through increased immigration, being a person of color has had its advantages in politics and elections. Besides pride, it connects candidates to voting blocs of people from the same background.
The growing strength of these minorities has resulted in policies that redirected hundreds of millions of dollars to communities of color. Excluded, however, were Arab-Americans, who over the past century have been categorized as white. Efforts to change that have focused on the US Census, which identifies people based on race but has no Arab category. Census results determine how federal money is disbursed to minority communities. They also help define minority politics, redrawing electoral boundaries to favor people of color and strengthen their vote.
Arab-American activists have tried to push the government to recognize their race and get it included in the Census, but it has been an uphill fight saddled by the controversial and emotional battle with Israel. Some fear that if Arab-Americans get too much power, they might alter the dynamics of US politics, which heavily favors Israel over the Palestinians.
Critics question Arab-American Essaibi George’s status as a ‘woman of color.’
Previously in America, racists would have targeted Essaibi George and attacked her because of her Arab heritage. But because race and color now are assets, the best way for her foes to undermine her is to question the validity of her heritage and color.
In American politics, race and color have an impact when it comes to winning elections. Saying she is not a woman of color helps undermine Essaibi George’s chances of becoming not only Boston’s first woman mayor and woman mayor of color, but also the city’s first Arab-American mayor.
- Ray Hanania is an award-winning former Chicago City Hall political reporter and columnist. He can be reached on his personal website at www.Hanania.com. Twitter: @RayHanania