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Report says Oregon minorities lack political clout

A study by the Oregon Progress Board shows non-Latino whites fare substantially better in the booming economy

Wednesday, July 19, 2000

By Rosario Daza of The Oregonian staff

SALEM -- When two members of Washington County's Fair Board questioned the strong Latino flavor at this month's Fourth of July festival, the ensuing controversy sent ripples from the county's water coolers to other parts of the state.

But among the county's Latino leaders, the silence was deafening.

Sabino Sardineta, executive director of Centro Cultural in Cornelius, often vocal on issues ranging from living conditions for migrant workers to cuts in English classes, was in Mexico.

Margaret Garza, who serves on Centro's board and the Hillsboro Chamber of Commerce, is also executive director of the county's FairPlex and hardly in a position to criticize the Fair Board.

"Where are the Latino leaders?" Garza said, pointing out that few other Latinos serve in elected or appointed positions.

Her question illustrates a political reality: Although nearly one in eight Oregonians are members of a minority group, the state's cities and counties are still governed by elected and appointed officials who almost exclusively are non-Latino whites.

This was just one finding of a report released Tuesday in Salem by the Oregon Progress Board, which tracks minority progress toward the state-set benchmarks. They include everything from dropout rates to home ownership but do not evaluate the elected official index. That measure of civic engagement is so important to the Progress Board, however, that it did its own research, polling all 36 counties.

The results are dismal, community leaders agree, showing minorities with a limited voice in government and few ways to address what remains a persistent achievement gap.

"It was pretty sobering," said Beverly Stein, chairwoman of the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners and a member of the Progress Board. "Despite the gangbusters economy, minorities are not faring, or progressing, as well as the white majority."

Here's a glimpse at the results:

Education: Although all groups improved in reading and math scores, only Native American eighth-graders improved more rapidly than the state average in both subjects. Despite gains, Latinos and African Americans still scored at less than half the state average. Dropout rates continue to be a problem for all ethnic groups with Latinos leaving school at more than twice the state average.

Health: The good news was the substantial gains in Latino and African American mothers receiving prenatal care during the first trimester. But despite the Oregon Health Plan, many minorities are still without health insurance, with Latinos the least likely to be covered.

Communities: Not only are African Americans over-represented in the state's arrest rates, but the percentage of those arrested nearly doubled from 6 percent to 11 percent in eight years. African Americans are also the least likely to own homes in Oregon and suffer from the highest poverty rates. Nearly one in three live below the poverty line.

"There's so far to go in every category," said Jackie Mercer, executive director of the Native American Rehabilitation Association. "Half of all Native American children in Multnomah County live in poverty, and almost a third of the households statewide struggle with substance abuse."

Stein said the Progress Board members did a double take when they saw the number of elected and appointed officials who are non-Latino whites -- 96 percent.

Stein, who works with the three African American state legislators, said she has witnessed how they are called to "do double-duty, be in all places at the same time or people get very upset.

"It's a challenge to all of us to nurture leadership in our communities among young people of color," she said.

Sen. Susan Castillo, D-Eugene, said she wasn't even conscious of being the first Latina legislator in Oregon history until her swearing-in ceremony in 1997. This in a state in which the population is now 12 percent minority and the fastest-growing group is Latinos, who at 200,000 make up half of all minorities, Castillo said.