By NICK MATTOS, El Hispanic News

A newly-released assessment authored by a diverse coalition of advocates grades Oregon legislators on their individual commitment to advancing opportunity and addressing disparities impacting Oregonians of color.

Released on January 15, “Facing Race: 2013 Legislative Report Card on Racial Equity” was produced by an independent working group composed of members of the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon, Basic Rights Education Fund, Causa, the Center for Intercultural Organizing, the Partnership for Safety and Justice, the Urban League of Portland, and the Western States Center. “This report is the second multi-issue report assessing our legislators’ commitment to creating racial and ethic equity in our state,” says Cassandra Villanueva, Director of Organizing and Advocacy for the Partnership for Safety and Justice, who worked on the assessment. “Our intention with this report card was to be constructive, but also to open the door to work with legislators who care about closing the racial divide in Oregon.”

Following up on a 2011 report, this report card is the first in the state to grade individual legislators on their policy decisions and voting records relating to racial equity. “When we look at a range of social and economic indicators, there are communities of color in Oregon that are suffering in a number of areas,” says Villanueva. “Legislators have a tremendous amount of power and influence with the decisions they make. The policy decisions they make can either increase opportunity or worsen disparities. Oregon’s racial gaps run deep and it undermines our ability to ensure a strong and stable future for all residents.”

Villanueva cites the state budget process as a key area where racial equity can and should include a racial equity focus. “The budget is a reflection of our priorities as a state,” she explains, “and legislators should take into account the existing disparities between communities of color and white Oregonians, and address these disparities on a budgetary level… [as] communities of color have disproportionately borne the brunt of budget cuts.”

While the report card presents a stark vision of the realities of Oregon’s legislative activity, Villanueva asserts that these results actually show a positive trend in the state’s policy activity. “In comparison to our last report in 2011, there was more progress made in passing legislation that addresses racial equity,” she says. “For example, in our last report card, there were 23 pieces of legislation assessed and only ten passed; this year, we analyzed 21 pieces of legislation and 18 passed. [Furthermore,] 1/3rd of the bills that passed had meaningful Republican leadership. This goes to show that ensuring racial equity in Oregon requires both Democrats and Republicans to come together and act as one to move Oregon forward.”

However, the results of the report card do indicate a divide between Democrats and Republicans — only one Republican, Representative Bob Jensen of Pendleton, received an “A” on the report card, whereas every one of the thirty-two House and Senate members rated as “Needs Improvement” is affiliated with the Republican Party.  “Ensuring racial equity in Oregon requires both sides of the aisle to come together,” says Villanueva. “It’s not a partisan issue – it takes both to make sure that legislation passes.”

The report cards indicate that there is still more work to be done, both for legislators and for voters. “Moving forward, we make four key recommendations for legislators,” explains Villanueva. “First, they can be explicit about addressing racial equity in Oregon, and that includes working with communities who are directly impacted by these disparities. They can also institute racial impact statements, which are a great tool for legislators to take into account to understand the consequences of their decisions. They can work with directly-impacted communities by partnering with organizations that they represent  —Legislators should consider bringing bills forward from communities that are directly affected by racial equity issues. Finally, our fourth recommendation is to desegregate data for different racial groups. Many ethnic groups have distinct experiences and needs, and when governmental agencies lump these groups together, the resulting data can result in misleading policy analysis and bad decision-making.”

For voters, communication is key in order to ensure that their elected officials understand the urgency and importance of racial equity on all levels. “Voters have a responsibility to hold their elected officials accountable for the decisions they make,” asserts Villanueva. “This will require talking with their legislators about the impact of racial disparities and the impacts of the decisions their legislators make.”

“Ultimately, Oregon’s racial gaps run deep,” notes Villanueva. “The sense of urgency with which we should address these disparities is heightened with the state’s shifting demographics. Communities of color are a significant part of Oregon’s future, and we shouldn’t be left behind in policy and budget decisions. Addressing racial equity is critical to Oregon’s future.”