One of the issues the Oneida County region’s newly elected leaders need to consider as they assume their roles is how to make sure a growing minority population gets heard in a government that has a severe lack of minority representation.
One of the issues this region’s newly elected leaders need to consider as they assume their roles is how to make sure a growing minority population gets heard in a government that has a severe lack of minority representation.
After all, government should reflect the people it serves.
But in Oneida County, Rome and Utica, it’s pretty lopsided. In last week’s election, voters ousted two of just three minority elected officials serving on the Utica and Rome common councils and Oneida County Board of Legislators. The three governments include a total of 47 elected officials — 98 percent of whom are white.
The only minority member left — Utica Common Council member Bill Phillips — represents a city with a 20 percent minority population in a county that has a 10 percent minority population.
Such racial imbalance isn’t limited to our region. It’s systemic across America. At the federal level, U.S. Census Bureau figures show that blacks, for example, make up more than 12 percent of the U.S. population, yet they hold just 8 percent of the seats in Congress. That’s 9 percent in the House, where 42 of the 435 delegates are black, and just one percent in the Senate, where one of 100 senators is black.
But the minority numbers are shifting, and if government is going to reflect the people it serves, we’ll need to encourage and help foster changes in our political culture. Our region has seen significant growth in minority numbers over the past decade, and several leaders in the local minority community have made some sound suggestions for engaging a more diverse populace.
Locally, the issue goes beyond black and white. U.S. Census Bureau figures show that Oneida County’s Hispanic population increased about 17 percent between 2000 and 2006 – to 8,876 residents, or four percent of the total county population. Likewise, the county’s Asian population has grown by more than 500 residents during the same period.
In the months ahead, elected leaders should make a concerted effort to fashion government for all people. They can begin by examining procedures for filling appointed positions, including commissions, boards and similar groups, to make sure such panels are inclusive and best reflect the community.
Patrick Johnson, racial justice director at the YWCA of the Mohawk Valley, points out that since most offices have been held predominantly by whites, others might feel disenfranchised. They don’t see people who look like them, nor have they been invited to become involved, Johnson said, and as a result they might not feel comfortable and their political interest is diminished.
Involving minority members in government not only can boost diversity, it can better attune the newcomers to the political process and whet their appetites to move to the next level by seeking elective office. Getting good qualified candidates of any ethnicity or race always is a challenge, and involvement at the grassroots level is a good first step.
Further, as suggested by Sonia Martinez, president of the Mohawk Valley Latino Association, minorities also can do more to engage young people in the political scene, and groups like the Mohawk Valley Latino Association and NAACP should work together to find good candidates and encourage them to seek office.
In the meantime, county and city leaders – not just Utica Councilman Phillips – need to make sure minority issues are not swept aside. Groups like the NAACP and Mohawk Valley Latino Association, as well as individuals can be the watchdogs necessary, too. And programs like the Y’s racial justice seminars that reach into the community can help develop an awareness that can be a catalyst for inclusion.
Only with that inclusion can our government be the best it can be. It’s not only a goal we must strive for. It’s a goal we must meet.