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Originally published Sunday, January 20, 2013 at 4:00 PM

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Op-ed: State Legislature gets a ‘D’ on racial equity

The Legislature’s “D” grade highlights a failure to consider the impact of policy on the persistent inequities that exist between people of color and white residents, according to guest columnists Ben Danielson and Lacy Steele.

Special to The Times

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AS the state Legislature focuses on funding education, their own grades should be top of mind as well.

In December, 52 organizations throughout the state released a Racial Justice Report Card that grades the state Legislature and its members on votes that impacted racial and economic equity.

The Legislature’s “D” grade highlights a failure to consider the impact of policy on the persistent inequities that exist between people of color and white residents.

Race still matters in America. Here in Washington, nearly 30 percent of residents are people of color and that percentage will keep growing.

The most recent census highlighted that for the first time ever, racial and ethnic minorities make up more than half of the children born in the U.S.

If anything, the 2012 re-election of President Obama proves that politicians who ignore the needs of an increasingly diverse electorate — including African-American, Latino, Asian American, Native American and immigrant voters — do so at their own peril.

Yet of the 60 state legislators who received failing grades in this year’s report card, 19 are from districts where more than 30 percent of their constituents are people of color. This performance tells us that racial inequity is still a major issue for communities and policymakers in our state.

For instance, Washington is ranked in the bottom five of all U.S. states at closing the educational achievement and opportunity gap, according to The Education Trust. About 34 percent of Seattle homes are underwater, according to Zillow, and because people of color were specifically targeted by banks for subprime loans, they are more likely to lose their homes to foreclosure. A report by the Center for Responsible Lending shows the disparity in subprime loans.

An ACLU analysis of aggravated murder convictions in Washington since 1981 finds that the state is more likely to impose the death penalty on African-American defendants than white defendants convicted of the same offense. We could go on.

Fortunately, a new session is upon us. Legislators now have a chance to improve their grades by taking steps toward racial equity.

Reducing racial inequity is not about pitting people of different races against each other in competition. There are policies that benefit all Washingtonians — such as early learning, expanding health coverage under the Affordable Care Act and protecting low-income workers — that also close gaps and create opportunities for people of color.

Passing the Washington Voting Rights Act would give voters the ability to challenge at-large election systems in which polarized voting patterns deny representation to some communities. In 10 combined Washington counties, the Latino population exceeds 33 percent but Latinos hold only 4 percent of elected offices.

The Legislature will also make decisions about tax revenue, and whether corporations and the wealthiest residents should pay their fair share. People of color — who skew toward middle and lower incomes and pay a disproportionate share of state taxes — have a stake in this fight, too.

If this report card shows anything, it shows that policy decisions can either increase access and opportunity, or they can reinforce disparities. The historical and present-day barriers that communities of color face must be addressed by legislators if we want to live up to our values of opportunity and equality.

The goal is to have every legislator receive an “A.” Just as making the grade in the classroom takes dedication, hard work and a consistent effort throughout the school year, Legislators must commit to advancing racial equity throughout the entire session, with every bill and every vote.

As leaders dedicated to racial equity, we are committed to working with legislators to enact common-sense policy solutions that improve the lives of all Washingtonians while reducing racial disparities.

The decisions legislators make on issues that impact racial and economic equity will not go unnoticed. Race matters in Washington, and the Legislature would be wise to start paying attention.

Ben Danielson, left, has been the medical director of Odessa Brown Children’s Clinic in Seattle since 1999. Lacy Steele is the president emeritus of the Seattle King County NAACP and a current executive board member.

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