The Common Good and People of Color

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.


  1. Joe

    Maria , thanks for the very good data and post. Are there policy statements by the political parties that indicate how the white elites construe the common good? That might be an interesting way to get at how white elites get to decide who is and is not within the common sphere? And do you think the demographic change will change the state’s politics in this regard in coming years?

  2. Maria Chavez Author

    Joe, Great questions. A political scientist named Daniel Elazar came up with the idea that we have different types of political cultures in different regions of the U.S. including Individualistic, Moralistic, and Traditionalistic. The authors in the first chapter of this book define political culture as “the mix of shared attitudes, values, behaviors, and institutions that reflects a particular history and approach to politics.” Pierce and his colleagues (2011) note that despite the political differences found in Washington’s two largest cities—Spokane and Seattle—both cities exhibit a moralistic political culture. In other words, Washington state’s political culture is dominated by a sense of the “common good” as opposed to an individualistic, laissez faire orientation, or a traditionalistic one where structures of government and patterns of policy making serve to reinforce the status quo such as in the southern region of the U.S. where the distribution of privileges and disadvantages structure opportunity in a state. Furthermore, Pierce and his colleagues argue that because of Washington’s high levels of social capital and its unique history of certain immigrant groups, Washington is a moralistic culture that places a high priority on the common good in that Washington State promotes healthy levels of social capital, or the sense of community connectedness and trust that leads to strong levels of political participation. We try to show that the people of color are left out of these academic notions of the common good when you consider representation and material well-being. Considering the economic situation we are facing in Washington and the cuts to education, health care for the poor, etc. and the opposition to a state income tax (we’re one of only a couple of states that doesn’t have one, so we have an extremely regressive tax system) I don’t see the state’s politics becoming more interested in “the common good” any time soon, especially for people of color who over represent the poor.

  3. Leannndra

    As a young person of color, I have only recently in my post-high school education realized that when the phrase “all men are created equal” was only referring to white males. This is a country built on institutionalized racism and a hunger for power and domination. The likelihood of the system changing itself, despite the growing populations of people of color, is very small. Thus, as usual, it is either up to people of color to rise up and work towards change, or elect people who will better represent us and our ‘common good’ as well.

    Those who are in power, for the most part, desire to keep their positions of power, and if we sit around hoping for change without any action, we will continue to live in a country where all white men are created equal, and everyone else remains moveable as serviceable to those in power.

    Although we cannot expect an immediate end to institutionalized racism in the United States government, thus abolishing the system that automatically sets folks of color up for significantly less wealth and opportunities, we can at least increase our own knowledge and education about the inequalities/inequities in the system and work toward something better and more fulfilling for everyone, but especially for those who have been historically underrepresented by their government and oppressed by the system.

Leave a Reply