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Immigrants, minority groups skeptical about Republican outreach

By Andrea Shalal-Esa

BALTIMORE (Reuters) - Latinos, African-Americans and other minorities who helped President Barack Obama win a second term are skeptical about enhanced Republican outreach to their communities, but also say the future of the coalition that shaped the 2012 election may be fragile.

Top Republicans rushed to do damage control last week after Mitt Romney blamed his election loss on what he called an Obama strategy of giving "gifts" to blacks, Latinos and young voters - groups instrumental to the president's re-election victory.

Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, chairman of the Republican Governors Association, and other Republicans warned that the party could not broaden its appeal unless it stopped insulting the very voters its was trying to reach.

"We have to really question their motives and how they're tokenizing these faces of color," Jessica Gonzalez-Rojas, executive director of the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, told activists and organizers at a conference on racial issues in Baltimore this weekend.

She said Latino voters and other minority groups remained on guard given the Republicans' reluctance to embrace immigration reform and other substantive issues. She said it had not escaped notice that most delegates at Republican convention were white despite the inclusion of Latino speakers.

Michael Omi, a leading scholar on U.S. racial politics at the University of California, Berkeley, said the Republican party faced a crisis in how to adapt to changing demographics, which show blacks, Latinos, Asians and others will eclipse whites as a majority of the U.S. population in three decades, without moving away from its core constituency of white males.

"All of that amounts to a pretty thin veneer," Omi told over 1,400 teachers, doctors, artists and others at the "Facing Race" conference hosted by the non-profit Applied Research Center.

He said it was still unclear if Asian-Americans and Latinos would be increasingly accepted as "honorary whites," which could align them more closely with the Republican party while perpetuating a black-white divide, or if the country would move toward a new, more multi-faceted view of race.

Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Junot Diaz, who immigrated from the Dominican Republic when he was a child and now teaches at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said the 2012 presidential election clearly reflected growing unease with what he called the Republican party's "angry white male machine."

"People of color have for the first time in the history of the United States attained a strategic plurality that, when coordinated, allowed us to decisively alter the outcome of the presidential campaign in Obama's favor," said Diaz, author of the best-selling novel, "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao."

IMAGES OF WHITE SUPREMACY

But maintaining the new alliances could be tough, given long-standing tensions among various groups, deeply internalized images of white supremacy among minorities and vast economic disparities still in place 50 years after the civil rights movement, Diaz said. "Who knows if the coalition will hold, splinter, collapse or mutate," he added.

Rinku Sen, executive director of the center that hosted the conference, said she saw growing interest in racial justice issues, including hundreds of grass-roots initiatives focused on immigrant rights, underperforming schools, healthcare, working conditions, human trafficking and mass incarceration.

Over the past four years, she said, many of those groups began working more closely together, partnering across racial, ethnic and gender lines to support each other.

In Minnesota, for instance, organizers brought together Native Americans, Somali immigrants and others to oppose a voter-identification amendment. In Maryland, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) rallied its members to support an amendment legalizing same-sex marriage.

Sen said there was also far more attention to racial issues during the 2012 election, but the Republican party faced an uphill battle with non-white voters after remarks like those made by Romney, especially since the Republican policy agenda did not address the needs of large numbers of people of color.

Republicans in recent years have taken a hard line against the estimated 11.2 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States, most of whom are Hispanic. During the campaign, Romney called for "self-deportation" of such immigrants.

"Unless they figure out how to adapt their policy platforms to address those needs, I think they're going to continue to have trouble," Sen told Reuters during the conference.

At the same time, Sen said a record number of deportations and other issues had left many immigrants and others ambivalent about the Democratic Party as well.

Diaz told reporters the Republican political machine remained strong and well-funded and could still fragment the fledgling coalition whose success in 2012 had surprised many of its own members.

"Just because people have the numbers does not mean they're not going to be captured," he said. "Historically there's been very efficient ways to neutralize numerical advantages."

(Editing by Philip Barbara)

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