In an upcoming chapter in Governing Washington: Politics and Government in the Evergreen State Luis R. Fraga and I examine the political incorporation of ethnic and racial communities by asking the question: Do ethnic and racial communities fit within the state’s general understanding of the common good and the public interest? This is important because the choices political leaders make regarding the state’s growing ethnic and racial diversity will have long-term consequences for how inclusive and responsive state government will be to all citizens and residents in the state of Washington. If Washington State serves as a model for the rest of the country, then political incorporation of people of color as the nation continues to get more diverse does not look good.
Like many states across the nation, the 2010 census reveals that during the last decade Washington State has experienced notable growth and profound shifts in its population. In 2000, it had a total population of 5,894,121; in 2010 its population rose to 6,724,540, a growth rate of 14.1 percent. It is estimated that 73% of all population growth in the state over the last decade was due to increases in its nonwhite population. Over the last ten years, Hispanics/Latinos increased by 37.8%, Whites increased by 27%, Asians by 18.8%, people of two or more races by 8.6%, African Americans by 5.4%, Native Hawaiians/Pacific Islanders by 1.9%, and American Indians/Alaska Natives by 0.4%. Whites were 78.9% of the state population in 2000, but by 2010 they had declined to now comprising under three-quarters of the population at 72.5%. How will this growing racial and ethnic diversity affect politics and policy-making? Will Latino, African American, Asian/Asian American, and Native American communities and their interests will be included within the state’s and in the larger country’s general understanding of the common good and the public interest?
In Protest is not Enough, Rufus Browning and his colleagues define political incorporation as “the extent to which group interests are effectively represented in policy making” (1984, 25). Looking at just a couple of measures such as political representation and material well-being through poverty measures and unemployment levels help us to answer the level of political incorporation of people of color in Washington. For example, ethnic and racial minority groups in Washington are not particularly well represented at any level of government. It was only in 2010 that the first Latina was elected to Congress. She is the only minority member of the state’s congressional delegation. There are two Asian Americans and one Latina serving in the state senate, comprising only 6% of the 49-member body. There are also only three Asian Americans, one Latina, one Latino, one African American, and one Native American serving in the 98-member state house of representatives. Together they comprise only 7% of all the members of the House, 27.5% of the population of the state is comprised of ethnic and racial minority communities.
Another way of gauging the political incorporation of communities of color is by examining levels of material well-being that, in part, result from the distribution of national- and state-level policy benefits. Overall, an estimated 15% of all people living in Washington live at or below the federally-established poverty level. Based on cross-group comparisons, Latinos have the highest poverty rates in the state; it is estimated that 30% of all Latinos live below the official poverty level. While 12% of Whites live at or below the poverty level, and over a quarter (27%) of African Americans live at or below the poverty level according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s March 2009 and 2010 Current Population Survey. Rates of unemployment by racial ethnic group statewide, demonstrate that both Latinos and African Americans have unemployment rates that are noticeably higher than that of their White counterparts. It is estimated that 9.2% of Latinos across the state are unemployed, whereas the figure for Whites out of work is 6.4%. African Americans have the highest estimated unemployment rate of any racial/ethnic group, registering 12.3%.
In sum, measures of policy benefits regarding poverty rates, and those who are unemployed reveal that Latinos and African Americans do considerably worse than Whites in the state of Washington. Undoubtedly, this pattern of systematic inequity in condition can be documented in virtually every state in the nation.
We are at a critical juncture to determine whether politics and policy-making processes have the capacity to effectively engage the growing ethnic and racial diversity in America. The choices made by the national and states political leaders will directly affect whether the country will incorporate communities of color. They will affect how well local communities of all classes, races, and backgrounds are empowered by the way they decide to adapt to demographic changes. Whatever path political leaders choose, the results of their decisions over the course of the next decade will be with us for generations and will impact how diverse communities are included in conceptions of the common good in America.