Elected officials are supposed to be representative of the people.
But what happens when those officials are part of different racial or ethnic groups from many of the people in their communities?
In 2015, the Reflective Democracy Campaign found that even though only about 60 percent of the U.S. population is white, 96 percent of Republican political candidates and 84 percent of Democrat candidates were white. But even in districts with elected officials who are minorities, challenges remain.
Wayne County’s Asian-American state senator
Sen. Hoon-Yung Hopgood is the first Korean-American to hold a state office in Michigan.
But his hometown of Taylor, south of Detroit, is 75 percent white, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. Only 1.6 percent of Taylor’s population is Asian-American. That means he has to reach out beyond his own racial community to build political support.
Hopgood, a Democrat who has spent six years in the Michigan House and was elected in 2010 to the state Senate, said that hasn’t been a problem for him. He’s lived in Taylor for 40 years and said he’s knocked on thousands of doors throughout his political career.
He said it’s important to confront racial issues “head on, so people know that I know the community, know the issues and my background. I grew up here.”
Hopgood said it’s also important for politicians to focus on issues that impact people regardless of their race or background. For Hopgood, whose father is a former president of the Michigan Federation of Teachers and School Related Personnel, one of those issues is education.
East Lansing’s white mayor reaches out
Nearly 62 percent of Americans are white, according to 2010 Census data, but in East Lansing the white population is even larger. About three-quarters of residents are white, including Mayor Mark Meadows.
But Meadows said city officials make an effort to be inviting to people of all races. The city participates in the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center Welcoming Michigan program, which promotes the benefits of immigrants to the country. East Lansing is one of the cities that resettled some of the Lost Boys of Sudan and hosts one of the larger Hmong populations in the region, Meadows said. The city also recently changed Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day.
Diversity training for all public safety individuals and anyone employed by the city is one of the ways East Lansing keeps a positive relationship with diversity.
“It’s an essential component in making sure that color is really not an issue in the city of East Lansing,” Meadows said. “I’m not saying that nothing has ever happened here. There are bigots and racists everywhere.”
Meadows, 69, has been involved with politics since the 1960s. He graduated law school in 1975 and became an assistant attorney general in Michigan. He served as a state representative from 2006 to 2012, and is serving his second tour on city council, having been a member from 1995 until 2006.
To him, a mayor is the main facilitator of issues in the city, bringing people together so they can solve problems.
“It is important for a mayor to be very cognizant of the issues in a community and the resources that are available to take care of those issues,” Meadows said.
“East Lansing residents are East Lansing residents, so I knock on every door, and I talk to anybody who wants to talk to me.
Staying relevant as a minority
There seems to be a common thread among the more successful politicians: they focus on issues that appeal cross-culturally, like unfunded liabilities, aging infrastructure and education, said state Rep. Stephanie Chang, whose parents are immigrants from Taiwan.
Chang represents Michigan’s 6th District, which runs along the Detroit River from Belle Isle in Detroit to Ecorse. The district’s population is 85 percent black, according to Census data gathered by Ballotpedia. Because of the size of Michigan Asian-American population — fewer than 3 percent of Michigan residents identify as Asian — any Asian elected official is going to work in a community where the majority of constituents are of a different race, she said.
“In terms of the issues we’re working on, a lot of them are really relevant to what’s going on in the district, so I think that whatever racial barriers there are get shattered,” Chang said. “I think there’s a small minority of people who probably would never support me just by virtue of my race, but that’s a very small minority of people. People just really want someone who will get the job done.”
What she shares with Meadows and Hopgood is the desire to see to the issues that bother the city as a whole without overlooking the individual.
“Ultimately really people are focused on who is going to work hard and who shares their values and who can they trust,” said Chang. “So I think in working on social justice and civil rights issues and also just by being really strong and ambitious, making a point of going door to door, connecting with people individually, is important and letting people know who you are as a person and how you’ll serve them as a public official.”