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What Can We Learn From Majority-Minority States? Numbers Don't Always Equal Political Power

Minority babies outnumbered white ones for the first time last year. But numbers don't always translate to political power.

Beginning at some point in the next 40 years or so, there will be no ethnic or racial majority in America, and according to the Census, that process already is well under way. For the first time, white births are outnumbered by minority births in the United States: From July 2010 to July 2011, whites accounted for 49.6 percent of all births while other racial groups combined made up 50.4 percent of the newborn population. In several states and 13 of the country's biggest cities, this has been the reality for decades.

One of the underlying fears propelling reactionary movements like the Tea Party is the loss of power. But how valid are these fears? Does a majority-minority country necessarily translate into more clout for previously marginalized groups? Not always, and certainly not right away. Women make up 51 percent of the population, yet they're underrepresented in leadership positions across the economic and political spectrum. Hawaii (which has never had a white majority), New Mexico, California, and Texas are majority-minority states, but the people who run them aren't exactly investing in the next generation by cutting funds to education and social services. (Indeed, some explicitly link this lack of resources directly to xenophobia.)

Even after minorities outnumber white people in the United States, the former will still have to fight for representation. Take California politics as an example: By 1985, white births were outnumbered by minority births in the state, outnumbering whites by 20 million. Yet Gov. Brown and both of California's senators are white, and only eight out of California's 53 members of Congress are Hispanic. And while California's population is less than half white, they make up 65 percent of the state's likely voters. Latinos, meanwhile, make up a third of California's population, but only 17 percent of them are likely to vote, according to the Public Policy Institute of California.

That isn't to say minorities don't wield some power—minority voters were central to President Obama's election in 2008, and the opposition to Arizona's controversial immigration bill was largely galvanized by Latino congresspeople like Rep. Raul Grijalva, who presides over a majority-Latino district. Still, political power doesn't automatically increase with numbers. It requires visibility—plus resources, organization, and class mobility.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user skampy.

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