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The Mechanics
« Chicago Says No to Erroneously Named "Secure Communities" Program Rahm Hits 100 Days, Huge Approval Numbers »

Column Mon Aug 22 2011

Growing Minorities Demand Political Action

by Dick Simpson
Seismic political changes are occurring unnoticed. Racial minorities have always been important in Chicago elections, but population changes now have profound effects on national politics as well. Minorities helped Barack Obama win the White House and Democrats control Congress until their setback in 2010 midterm elections.

In 2008, nearly one in four voters was a racial minority. Whites still made up 76 percent of the 131 million people who voted nationally, but blacks were 12 percent, Latinos 7 percent and Asians 2.5 percent.

In the 2010 election 6.6 million Latinos voted, again representing 7 percent of all voters. But they are predicted to cast as many as 12 million ballots in 2012. They continue to grow more rapidly in population and in voters than any other segment of society.
These trends are being played out even faster in Illinois. In 2008, 11 percent of the Illinois electorate was Latino, 13 percent was black and 6 percent was other (mostly Asian). With over 708,000 eligible Latino voters in Illinois, they are enough to swing any statewide election and many local ones.

Latinos are also 29 percent of the Chicago population and 24 percent of Cook County.

These demographic figures have major political implications because 52 percent of white voters are Republican nationally and only 39 percent call themselves Democrats, as more whites move towards the GOP. But 86 percent of African Americans and 64 percent of Latino voters continue to identify as Democrats.

The big story is the population change that will occur. While Latinos are only 29 percent of the Chicago population now, 41 percent of the children under 18 years of age in Chicago are Latino. As these children become eligible to vote, Latinos are going to become a major political force -- if they gain citizenship, register and vote.

In the redistricting plan just passed by the Illinois General Assembly and signed by Gov. Pat Quinn, Latinos were able to keep one U.S. Congress seat while blacks were able to hold the three seats they have currently. In state legislative districts, Latinos, blacks, and Asians were mostly grouped together, theoretically allowing them to influence legislators.

But a major political war is shaping up at City Hall. African Americans currently have a majority of voters in 19 wards, while Latinos have the majority in 11 wards (though two are represented by the powerful white aldermen Ed Burke and Dick Mell). But by population, Latinos should have majorities in nearly 15 wards. That would mean whites and blacks would lose control of four wards. So racial battle lines are drawn as the ward lines get drawn in the next six months.

We are a multi-racial city and state, although segregation still holds sway in Chicagoland. Multi-culturalism will dominate our future political life -- that is our new political reality.

The winning political strategy in the future requires attracting minority voters, though Republicans seem particularly tone deaf to this. Yes, they get more white voters now by opposing all immigration reforms except stronger borders. They attract white voters by making racist slurs about President Obama. But these are losing strategies in the long run.

Minorities like blacks, Latinos, and Asians don't automatically align with each other's interests and political agenda. Demographic and cultural changes make our politics more nuanced. Local politics is going to require new coalitions.

The result of the population changes will be that if the economy improves and overseas wars begin to abate, then Obama will be reelected -- minority voters will make sure of that. And in the city council battle, whites will put Chinatown voters in a single ward and give Latinos at least two or three new wards to control in order to cement racial alliances.
Up until now, Latinos have been junior partners in mayoral regimes. Now they have the numbers to demand an equal seat at the table. And Asian voters are now numerous enough to demand to be heard.

Demography is not always destiny, but in politics, numbers count.

This column originally appeared in The Chicago Journal.

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