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Blacks, Latinos, Asians bent on to breaking glass ceiling of  Gwinnett County politics

By D. Aileen Dodd First of two parts | 5/3/2013, noon
Kathy Rivera, left, owner of La Fragua Restaurant, stands outside with customer Angel Sanchez Friday, Sept. 30, 2011 in Norcross, Ga. Despite explosive growth in the last decade, Georgia Hispanics and other minorities haven’t made a dent in Gwinnett County politics. Minority political activists say the diverse populations of the northern Georgia county need to work more closely together. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

During an era when the nation’s first African American chief executive is cruising into his second presidential term and a Latina is handing down opinions on the U.S. Supreme Court, Gwinnett County appears to be stuck in a cultural time warp under the leadership of all-white powerbrokers that do not reflect the county’s changing demographics.

The Gwinnett County Board of Commissioners is all white. The Gwinnett County School Board is all white. So are the judges elected to Gwinnett County’s State and Superior Courts.

The lack of diversity in county politics has many Gwinnettians asking why, in this day and age, nonwhites have been unable to penetrate the glass ceiling. Gwinnett is Georgia’s most diverse county with a melting pot of more than 842,000 people, according to the U.S. Census.

“Right now our county population is majority people of color, yet we have no people that look like any of the majority people running it,” said Marlyn Tillman, a long-time community activist who lives in Snellville. “When you keep that homogeneous body running the county and running the school board, then there is a belief system that sets in that they are there because they are the only people who can lead. If we don’t put ourselves in power, we aren’t going to get any power.”

For those in power, being white doesn’t automatically make them insensitive to minority issues.

Long-time Gwinnett politician Louise Radloff, who has served on the school board for 41 years, said she relates well with her minority constituents. She teaches English to immigrants; has served as a public health advocate for the low income; and is advising an African-American woman who is considering a run for her seat.

“Diversity will come,” Radloff said. “We need quality people running for office, people of character and ethics. What serving on the board really means is meeting goals and closing the achievement gap. What doesn’t matter is the color of your skin is, your church or religion or the country that you came from.”

At the beginning of the millennium 7 out of 10 Gwinnett residents were white. By 2009, the county was mostly “minority” with significant population gains among nonwhites. Census figures show Gwinnett is now 43 percent white; 25 percent black; 20 percent Hispanic; 11 percent Asian; and nearly 1 percent Native American. Seventy percent of the 165,000 students enrolled in Gwinnett County Schools are nonwhite, according to a March 2013 enrollment count provided to the state Department of Education.

Diversity hasn’t translated into political power for the county’s growing African American and immigrant communities. Minorities in Gwinnett have been hard hit by unemployment, crime, and the fallout of failing schools, which in Gwinnett serve mostly low-income African American, Asian and Hispanic students, statistics show. Two-thirds of those living in poverty in Gwinnett are nonwhite.

But minorities in Gwinnett frustrated with county politics want change now.

A movement is growing to improve the plight of diverse communities that are struggling for economic opportunities and political representation. A network of African-American, Asian and Hispanic community leaders are working to make sure future county boards are more reflective of diverse neighborhoods they represent. They see numbers as their greatest strength and are building allegiances with each other to gain political clout.