Our democracy has come alive. The weeks after the 2016 election have been a time of deep concern for many people in the U.S. In response, people are marching and protesting, contacting their elected officials and adding their names to petitions.
This postelection surge in political participation is promising. But will it mark a long-term shift in the status quo for democratic engagement? The truth is, for far too long, levels of political participation have been generally low – and marked with tremendous racial and economic disparity. Individuals with higher levels of income and education have participated at higher rates than their lower-income and less educated counterparts, and whites have participated at higher rates than people of color.
Our new report, “Unequal Voices, Part II: Who Speaks for California?”, shows that these disparities are also true in California. Looking across a range of political activities, from contacting elected officials to signing petitions and contributing to campaigns, our report finds that whites had the highest rate of participation in almost all categories when compared to people of color. Latinos and Asian Americans are a majority of California’s resident population and a near-majority of the adult population, but they account for only a quarter or a third of participants in many political activities.
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Even more alarming, the report finds that the political power imbalance will persist into the next generation. More than 8 million young people will enter the California electorate between 2015 and 2030, and 70 percent of these new eligible voters will be people of color. But, according to our report, Asian American and Latino millennials are least likely to engage in a wide variety of political activities, including contacting public officials, supporting campaigns and engaging in consumer activism. White millennials also are twice as likely as blacks and three times as likely as Latinos and Asian Americans to make political contributions.
The issue here is not a lack of interest in politics among people of color. As our report reveals, low political interest is most prevalent among whites and least prevalent among Latinos. Rather, our report finds that racial disparities in participation exist in large part due to structural barriers that lead to people of color being less empowered to engage.
For example, Latinos and Asian Americans are much less likely to be contacted by political parties than whites or blacks. In addition, individuals with lower levels of income and education are less likely to be part of social networks that mobilize people to get involved in politics.
California increasingly is looked to as a beacon of democracy and progressive values for the nation. California’s leaders must seize this moment to use the strength of our diversity to reshape our politics.
There are a number of steps that public officials and government can take, from developing new methods for engaging with the public to strengthening the civic education curriculum in California’s schools. One key reform is enactment of local public participation ordinances that create more meaningful opportunities for public engagement, such as creating public advisory boards.
Our state’s continued progress in reducing disparities in opportunity for upward mobility depends on our ability to reduce disparities in political participation. Across our state, we need to create new and better ways to engage people in shaping government decisions on health care, education and other issues that affect our daily lives. We need to ensure that more Californians of color and low-income Californians are mobilized to participate in decision-making processes beyond voting.
Changes like these will foster greater and more racially diverse participation in our democracy, and will give us the best chance yet to create prosperity for all.
John Dobard is manager of Political Voice at Advancement Project California. He can be contacted at JDobard@advanceproj.org.