Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Where are the Natives?

According to the most recent Census data, gathered in 2010, 19.3 percent of Americans reside in rural areas. In fifteen states, more than fifty percent of the population lives in an area designated “rural” by the U.S. Census Bureau. (Note: “To qualify as an urban area [for census purposes], the territory identified according to criteria must encompass at least 2,500 people, at least 1,500 of which reside outside institutional group quarters. . . . ‘Rural’ encompasses all population, housing, and territory not included within an urban area.”) While the results of the latest election cycle have sparked a renewed interest in rural America (see, e.g., articles from major news outlets like the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post), historical coverage of those outside the urban norm has been decidedly sparse. Often, when attention is paid to rural places and populations, it is demonstrative of “nostalgia for our rural past,” rather than cognizance of rural present. In 2016, Tom Vilsack, the then-Secretary of Agriculture, summed up public and political interest in rural America with the comment: “I just sometimes think rural America is a forgotten place. . . . because people don’t pay attention to this part of the country.” Fortunately or unfortunately (depending on your political affiliations), the 2016 election cycle did nothing if not effectively prove that rural America is not without political influence—as evidenced by Hillary Clinton’s loss despite winning nearly 90 percent of the vote in urban cores.

If voting patterns in rural America have signaled a recoup of relevance, it is notable that the population receiving national scrutiny—the population now cashing in on its political capital—represents only a particular segment of the rural electorate. As noted in a recent post on this blog, the most popular question in America over the past month has arguably been: Who voted for Donald Trump? And news media sources have been quick to provide answers: anti-establishment voters, “rural red-county” evangelicals, and—overwhelmingly—the white, working class. Missing from this entire discussion are the roughly 3,432,000 Native American voters registered and eligible to vote in the United States.* Previous blog posts have discussed the Native vote with respect to the 2008 national election and the 2014 Senate races, but aAs I’ve waded through the post-election coverage the past few weeks, I wondered, where was the Native vote in 2016?

*66 percent of the total American Indian and Alaska Natives populations—5.2 million people by 2010 Census measures—are eligible and registered to vote.

Like many other minority groups, “Natives,” the term used by the Carsey Institute to refer to those who self-identify as American Indians or Alaska Natives, are often categorized under broad social and economic labels that fail to account for the diversity of cultural experiences and heritages that color the population. In the case of Natives, “Native voices are often grouped with all rural residents in portrayals of rural places.” To be fair, there is overlap in both the demographic and cultural predilections of Natives and non-Native rural populations.

A comparison between surveys conducted by the Carsey Institute in Native and non-Native rural communities is illustrative:

On community life:
  • A majority of rural residents describe their community as cohesive and neighborly, and local involvement in community groups and organizations is high (i.e., “Rural Americans are joiners”)
  • More than half of Natives consider daily community life integral to their identity, and exhibit “strong family attachment” and deep “familial roots” in their communities
On the natural environment and attachment to place:
  • In rural locales (with exceptions in areas experiencing resource-based decline and in chronically poor communities), natural beauty is considered “very important” with respect to living decisions, and 70 percent of rural respondents participate in hunting
  • Two-thirds of Natives cite natural beauty as a reason to remain in their communities, and 73 percent of Natives indicate hunting, gathering, and harvesting is very important to their way of life
On economics:
  • Most of the rural population (i.e., “[a]lmost everyone”) is concerned about a lack of job opportunity, and only 40 percent of rural respondents work full-time
  • Eighty-five percent of Natives are concerned about a lack of job opportunity, and across regions, a majority of Natives consider it the “most important” concern their community faces
Natives face many hardships that are (sadly) common features of the rural experience. The “vicious cycle” of substance abuse (e.g., soaring heroin use and the opiate epidemic, to name only two examples) in rural communities is mirrored in Native populations. Indeed, Natives are more likely than any other minority group to need treatment for alcohol use and illicit drug use.  Poverty rates have been higher in rural areas for decadesNatives have the highest poverty rate (28.3 percent) of any race group—a percentage that is almost double the national average. Like many rural Americans, Natives living on reservations lack complete plumbing (8.6% versus the national average of .5%) and access to a telephone (18.9% versus the national average of 3.7%) at higher rates. Natives are also more likely to experience overcrowding in the home, Native women are two times more likely to be the victims of rape or attempted rape, and reservation roadways are some of the most underdeveloped in the nation.

But despite their similarities, Natives also face unique challenges that are simply not shared by most of rural America. The most notable is disenfranchisement. Though the Indian Citizenship Act extended voting rights to Natives in 1924, voting restrictions were not eliminated in every state until as late as 1970 (Colorado was one of the last states to remove literacy test requirements for Natives). The combination of historical discrimination and existing access obstacles has meant that Natives continue to have some of the lowest voter participation rates in the country. In the most recent national election, Natives found themselves subject in many places to discriminatory ballot-collection laws, “questionable poll judge behavior,” and a dearth of polling sites. In Arizona, for example, a state with the largest concentrated Navajo population, voters waited over five hours to cast their ballots—and that’s after a commute of four hours to even reach the nearest polling station from the Navajo Nation reservation.

It would seem that Natives have been missing from the 2016 election discourse not (only) because of their negligible impact, but—heartbreakingly—because they continue to be functionally excluded in far too many places.


Kyle said...

Thank you for this post, which asks an important question that is easy to overlook because of our assumptions about rural places as being homogeneously White. Other recent posts have examined the experiences of rural Black farmers (http://legalruralism.blogspot.com/2017/01/civil-rights-and-usda-in-modern-era.html), immigrant workers (http://legalruralism.blogspot.com/2017/02/trumps-costly-deportation-force.html), and others who challenge this view of a monolithic rural. This is important, of course, because the needs and policy preferences of the Native American community likely diverge from those of other rural actors. (Though the Carsey Institute piece suggests there are some common threads.)

I have raised issues of how redistricting can allow politicians to "choose their voters." (http://legalruralism.blogspot.com/2017/02/small-states-outsized-political-power_13.html) I suspect (without evidence, though these maps suggest I'm not wildly off-base https://www.census.gov/geo/maps-data/maps/aian_wall_maps.html) that Native American communities are often "packed" into districts where their political voice -- even absent legal and other barriers to exercising it -- may be drowned out by the dominant elements of rural communities.

Finally, something that has me puzzled is noise in the data. This post cites a 66% NA/AI voter registration rate, which would be higher than the self-reported rates for all other racial groups as measured by the U.S. Census. (https://www.census.gov/data/tables/time-series/demo/voting-and-registration/p20-577.html) *But* those measures include significant "did not answer" figures. They are also from the 2014 election cycle. The Demos report, which states that Native Americans have the lowest voter participation rate of any group, is based on 2008 data. I think it's likelier that the 2014 Census data are methodologically different, but other explanations are possible. In any case, this post helps draw our attention to an important group within "the rural" that is all too easily rendered invisible.

Mollie M said...

This data kind of displays a marginalization not only during elections, but in every day life. It makes me think about the danger of a single story: https://prezi.com/ucfn5wwqbzsn/the-danger-of-a-single-story-native-american-culture/?webgl=0 and the danger of having one single story about rural Americans and native Americans alike. There are so many layers, both social and political: stereotypes, (think Peter Pan, Halloween costumes), and marginalization on top of so many barriers to democratic representation.
I think it is also hard for me to even talk about this issue as a white person who doesn’t know enough about this issue. It is hard to even compare and contrast cultures, because the array of tribes and creeds is co diverse among Native American populations, and I feel that I have to be careful as to not overgeneralize.

Wynter K Miller said...

Dear Kyle, thank you so much for your astute parsing out of the data! I went back through everything and you're right: there appear to be a possible empirical discrepancy. Table 2 of the US Census report (https://www.census.gov/data/tables/time-series/demo/voting-and-registration/p20-577.html) lists the "Reported registered" percentage rate at 64.6 for 2014 (with a 16.7% no response rate). The 66% I referenced in my blog post (from the NCAI) is a 2015 statistic (http://www.ncai.org/resources/ncai_publications). And the 2008 Demos report specifically states "American Indians and Alaska Natives voting rates are among the lowest of all racial and ethnic group in the U.S. Almost two out of five eligible American Indians and Alaska Natives are not registered to vote" (emphasis added). Two out of five equates to roughly 40%, suggesting that the Demos report roughly accords with the NCAI statistic that around 60% of Natives areregistered to vote.

Notably, Table 2 of the US Census report also listed the following "Reported registered" percentage rates: 63.4% for Black Alone (with a 19.6% no response rate); 48.8% for Asian Alone (with a 24.5% no response rate); and 51.3% for Hispanic (with a 18.6% no response rate). Obviously, 66% is higher than the rates for these other minority groups. Given the alignment of the Demos report and the NCAI statistic, I'm inclined to think the inconsistency with respect to the US Census report is methodologically-based (and perhaps also impacted by the no response rates).

Kaly said...

As Kyle said above, I think this post is an important challenge to the portrayal that it is only white people living in rural areas. The specific question of how Native Americans voted in the election wasn't one I had actually thought of before, and considering that the assumption that minorities always vote Democrat is decidedly untrue (Miami is a pretty perfect example of that) it's a good one to ask. I'm very surprised that there wasn't any data of what the numbers were.

Willie Stein said...

This data is pretty interesting from the perspective of Native American participation in civic life. I can't help but wonder (and will cop to ignorance on this point) how much messaging flows the other way; i.e. how do politicians speak to Native interests? I might naively expect Democrats to speak more consistently to Native Americans than their Republican counterparts as an analogue to other minorities, but is that true? I can't recall any time in the last election cycle that a politician running for federal office made an explicit pitch to Native interests on either side. As Mollie notes above, indigenous people are by no means a monolithic single viewpoint, so politicians might just throw up their hands and abandon this kind of messaging. A lack of outreach could certainly go a long way toward explaining low participation from Native voters.