Black History Month is here! I did a quick poll about what to do this month and a few people said that they’d like to see me do black politicians. So, I will be doing: Presidents, Cabinet members, Senators, Congresscritters, Governors, Judges, Mayors, and Ambassadors. Perhaps some key state officials.
But today, I wanted to start out with an overview of the state of African-Americans in American politics. I have reviewed numerous articles about this, and I’m very glad that it’s being looked at, even though the data is grim. After all, we have to see the problem and understand the problem in order to do something about it.
By conventional measures of income, education, or occupation at least a third of today’s African Americans can be described as middle class. That is an astonishing–probably historically unprecedented–change from the early 1960s, when blacks enjoyed the “perverse equality” of almost uniform poverty in which even the best-off blacks could seldom pass on their status to their children. Many blacks view political representation as a potential catalyst for increased racial equality, according to a new Pew Research Center survey. Roughly four-in-ten black adults (38%) say that working to get more black people elected to office would be a very effective tactic for groups striving to help blacks achieve equality.
So how have we done? We represent around 13% of the US population. .” Between 1971 and 2009, the percentage of African-American state legislators more than quadrupled, from 2 to 9 percent. But the gains have been uneven. We are seeing increased representation in Congress, and unparalleled representation in the presidential cabinets (except now). But in the Senate, in state legislatures, in city councils, where policies most clearly affect the daily lives of African-Americans, the gap between population and representation is notable. Take Ferguson, for example. Though African Americans make up about two-thirds of Ferguson’s population, they hold just one of the six seats on its City Council. Similarly, representation in state legislatures is low and statehouses are some of the best and most reliable pipelines for national politics. About three-fourths of lawmakers in Congress got their jobs after holding political office in their states.
What is the impact when there is descriptive representation in politics? A legislating body is descriptively representative if its members reflect the demographics of the community they’re supposed to represent. Descriptive representation is very important. Descriptive representation fosters engagement between citizens and their representatives, forging connections that promote policies and practices that reflect the lived experience of citizens and are viewed by the community as fair and sensible. Studies show that African Americans tend to be more engaged with the political process when they are descriptively represented. They pay closer attention to elections and vote at higher rates when they are represented by an African American official and are more likely to run for offices that are or have been held by an African American. In addition, African American officials tend to be more engaged with the African American communities they represent than their non-African American colleagues. Research suggests that African American legislators are more responsive to African American constituents than white lawmakers.8 They also advocate more forcefully for African American interests during the legislative process, proposing legislation and making speeches that promote African American interests at significantly higher rates than non-African American officials.
And what are our issues? Here are a few.
• Increasing the minimum wage to $10.10 would lift over 3.5 million workers of color out of poverty.
• Changes to policing policies would end “stop and frisk” practices.
• Adding paid sick leave hours would increase public health.
Other issues include:
• injustices in our criminal justice system and incarceration rates – Incarceration in the U.S. has increased by 500 percent over the past three decades, with people of color vastly over-represented in our nation’s prisons and jails even though the national crime rate has dropped,
• the ability to get credit and mortgages (still a problem),
• the wealth gap – racial wealth and income gap that is higher today than at any point since the Federal Reserve began tracking it 30 years ago,
• and voter suppression – since Obama was elected, with the highest black turnout in an election, 33 states enacted voter ID laws and other voter suppression laws. And with the reversal of the Supreme Courts position on the Voting Act, Southern states have the right to change voting policies.
So, we need to increase representation. But there are significant obstacles. First, there is “racial gerrymandering,” packing minority voters into a handful of districts to limit the number of representatives they can elect. Then there is economics: Few minorities can afford to get by on a part-time legislator’s salary — or have the kind of careers that will afford them the flexibility to serve in office. Most new candidates either fund their campaigns with their own money or with family help. That is far less likely to happen in African-American households. Black, Latino and other minority candidates also often lack political connections, Finally, the lack of minority representation is self-perpetuating, because it’s harder for people to imagine running for the legislature if there aren’t any lawmakers like them. After years of largely ignoring minority groups, political parties are still trying to figure out how to woo them as voters and donors, and not necessarily how to recruit them to run for office.
But there’s a flip side to this. It’s painful, but not surprising. The appearance of black political clout is deceiving. Despite gains in participation and representation, blacks continue to fare worse than whites in converting their policy preferences into law. This poor performance is more revealing than statistics on turnout or black electoral success. As support for a policy rises within the black community, the odds of it being achieved actually decline. At both federal and state levels, blacks hold much less sway than whites. A federal policy with no white support has only a 10 percent chance of being enacted, while one with universal white support has a 60 percent shot of adoption. But while a proposal with no black support has a 40 percent chance of becoming law, one enjoying unanimous approval has only a 30 percent probability of enactment. In other words, as support for a policy rises within the black community, the odds of it being achieved actually decline. In contrast, both federal and state laws are acutely sensitive to the preferences of whites, men, and the rich. What really matters in a democracy is getting policies enacted that correspond to people’s views. And on this front, blacks still have a long way to go. Their opinions—on vital issues like crime, welfare, and housing—are too often ignored by elected officials when they conflict with whites’ preferences.
As I said, it’s not surprising. And a lot of it has to do with money. The dominance of big money in our politics makes it far harder for people of color to exert political power and effectively advocate for their interests as both wealth and power are consolidated by a small, very white, share of the population. The undemocratic role of big money is especially exclusionary for people of color, who are severely underrepresented in the “donor class” whose large contributions fuel campaigns and therefore set the agendas in Washington and state capitals across the country. Donor and corporate interests often diverge significantly from those of working families on economic policies such as the minimum wage and paid sick leave, people of color are disproportionately harmed because a larger percentage are poor or working class.
The only answer I see to this problem is to get money out of politics. Only by getting money out of politics do we stop the unfair influence from the rich on issues that affect African-Americans. No more powerful example is there than mass incarceration. Mass incarceration fuels the prison-industrial complex. It affects the bottom line for hundreds of corporations and a healthy portion of the 1%. They don’t want the system to fail, they don’t want the system to shrink, they don’t want the steady stream of workers to go away. That’s why Sessions is willing to revive the War Against Drugs. It is in the interests of the 1%. And as long as they have the clout to affect elections, they have the power to determine public policy, policies that can severely impact people of color. Doing this reading has helped me understand that the issue of campaign finance has to be ranked as one of the highest policy platform issues of African-Americans. Up there with jobs and environmental issues, such as maintaining clean water in our communities.
And so, I kick off black history month with a look at our African-American politicians, realizing that they truly have an up-hill battle in representing us. So often, I have heard people suggest that our elected officials lose their way, get bought and influenced by the system. I’m no longer sure that that explains why we don’t see more policy change even though we have proportional Congressional representation. It’s that when our issues and needs conflict with the 1%, the 1% wins. Somehow, we need to get that to change.