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Alaska’s new diversity indicates trends toward competitive politics and more progressive policy

Date Published: 07/25/2013

Author: Dane Smith, President


Many people who visit Alaska see it only on cruise ships, or they fly in to Anchorage and get out  to the “real” Alaska as soon as they can, to the more scenic grandeur of the wilderness or the prime fishing and camping spots, where they typically rub elbows with a mostly affluent and mostly white crowd of fellow travelers and tourist industry employees and entrepreneurs.

That’s what I’ve done in previous trips. And after my 2009 visit and during the peak of former Gov. Sarah Palin’s popularity, as the state’s local Tea Party was in ascendance, I posted a blog  about how the state’s dominant political philosophy and anti-government mentality was peculiar and wrongheaded, given that it receives more per capita federal government  investment than just about any other state.

But this summer I spent a whole week right in urban Anchorage, exploring the neighborhoods in Spenard and Mountain View, where I grew up in the 1950s and 1960s. And now I’m wondering whether that philosophy and culture really is so dominant. I was immediately struck by the increasing racial diversity of the state’s only big city, now accounting for some 40 percent of the state’s total population. Alaska has always had a large and vibrant Native American population, but I saw and talked to many African immigrants, Latinos, Pacific Islanders and Middle Eastern and Asian immigrants, in relative numbers that appeared to be similar to our own Twin Cities.

Intrigued, I checked the latest Census figures and they startled me, not just for what they show about Alaska but for many other so-called “red” states in the western two-thirds of our national land area. The demographic shifts documented by the Census suggest that these states over the next few decades likely will be gradually shifting away from the policies and politics of hard-core conservatism, too often associated with the interest of a white majority in affluent suburbs or rural regions.

Here are some of those vital statistics:   

Minnesota is the 13th whitest state, at 83 percent, and changing rapidly from 98 percent white just 40 years ago. Alaska is far more diverse, only the 36th whitest state, at 64 percent. Alaska has the largest Native population in the nation, at about 15 percent, but clearly other racial minorities comprise an equally large percentage. Wherever the “real” Alaska may be, these are real Alaskans and this diversity is also spreading throughout rural areas of the Mountain West and the Great Plains.

These are the states in those regions, in ascending order of minority population, with lower proportions of white residents than Minnesota: Nebraska (82 percent white), Utah (80 percent), Oregon (78 percent), Kansas (78 percent), Washington (72 percent), Colorado (70 percent), Oklahoma (68 percent), Arizona (57 percent), Nevada (54 percent) and New Mexico (40 percent). Those states with the smaller white percentages tend to be more politically competitive and less reliably conservative.

What’s happening in Alaska politics is instructive. Despite a national image created largely by Palin’s notoriety, more moderate Republicans and Democrats are competing and winning in local and state politics. One of Alaska’s U. S. senators, Lisa Murkowski, is considered a moderate and defeated a very conservative challenger, and the other senator, Mark Begich (directly related to the well-known Begich clan on Minnesota’s Iron Range) is a moderate Democrat who won a narrow victory over the late Sen. Ted Stevens, who also was considered a moderate and a fierce fighter for federal tax dollars for Alaska.

Alaska voters’ independence and moderation have been badly underestimated by the national media, according to a commentary in www.alaskadispatch.com, a feisty and independent online news journal. Author Amanda Coyne, citing Gallup surveys that consistently show Alaska as one of the most moderate states politically, questions whether Alaska has “always been mischaracterized as a bright red state (by) East Coasters who, when they come up from their chardonnays long enough to think about the red swaths of the country west of the Mississippi, tend to lump us all together as one.”

Increasing racial diversity is likely to enlarge this independent and moderate streak in Alaska, and in all the Western and Plains states, and will hopefully push red-state political leaders away from a philosophy and policy that is disdainful of legitimate complaints about social injustice and economic inequality.

Some of the nation’s more thoughtful and courageous conservatives have been arguing  persuasively that the GOP has a severe and potentially fatal problem with communities of color, and that their policies and public relations have created lasting enmity and declining percentages of support among the fastest growing demographics. A recent New Republic article, by Sam Tanenhaus, editor of the New York Times Book Review, lays out a welter of statistics that describe a Republican “whiter-shade-of-pale legislative Rotary Club” in Congress and state legislatures, and “not only a failure of strategy or ‘outreach’, but also a history of long-standing indifference, at times outright hostility, to the nation’s diverse constituencies—blacks, women, Latinos, Asians, gays.”

In Minnesota and in every state, the trends are widening on racial disparities in unemployment, educational attainment and practically every measure of well-being. The demand from some quarters this month for a “national conversation” on race, provoked by the tragic death of Trayvon Martin and acquittal of George Zimmerman, is only a manifestation of these larger demographic and socio-economic disparities.

And candidates in all parties who get out ahead of these issues with practical, good-faith solutions that begin to narrow racial and economic disparities will prevail, because people of all colors are beginning to realize it’s the right thing to do.

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