The police officers in Ferguson, Mo., and the citizens they see as they stare through their gun-sights look dramatically different. Two-thirds of the approximately 21,000 residents of Ferguson, the small suburb of St. Louis, are African American. About 95 percent of the officers sworn to protect them are white.
That disparity is hardly unusual, both in police departments across the country and in other local government agencies.
Whites are more likely to hold jobs with local governments than African Americans, Hispanics or other non-white minorities. Whites are much more likely to hold high-paying jobs within those governments.
And while the disparity between white and non-white employment has narrowed over the last half century, with the implementation of anti-discrimination laws and the country’s increasing diversity, it remains the fact that whites are employed more, and at higher wages, than their non-white counterparts.
Start with police departments themselves. In a country in which 64 percent of the population is white, according to the Census Bureau, the Bureau of Justice Statistics shows almost 75 percent of full-time sworn law enforcement personnel are white (The New Republic first pulled this data from a BJS publication).
African Americans make up 12 percent of law enforcement agencies, just about in line with their 12.2 percent share of the population. In police departments, it’s Hispanic officers who are the most underrepresented: Though they account for 16 percent of the population, just 10.3 percent of law enforcement officers are Hispanic.
Smaller cities tend to have much less diverse police populations, which is not terribly surprising given that smaller cities tend to have higher percentages of white residents (Ferguson is a relatively rare example of a small city with an overwhelmingly non-white population). In cities with fewer than 100,000 residents, more than 80 percent of law enforcement officers are white.
In other government agencies, too, whites are overrepresented among higher-wage earners. Whites make up 74.8 percent of high-wage earners in local government agencies, 10 points higher than their share of the population. Blacks make up 11.2 percent of those high-wage earners; Hispanics account for just 8.8 percent, about half their actual representation in the general population, according to a study conducted by Census Bureau historian Todd Gardner for the Urban Institute.
“While high-wage local government employment has become more diverse over time and has generally paralleled the increasing diversity of the population, keeping up with the rapid pace of diversification has been a longstanding challenge for local government employment,” Gardner wrote.
The percentage of minorities in local government increased dramatically after passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, which banned employment discrimination on the basis of race. In 1960, blacks made up just 4 percent of high-wage government employees, a little more than one-third the percentage they account for today. Blacks made up 9.8 percent of low-wage government workers in 1960, and they make up 17.1 percent today. Hispanics went from 2.3 percent of the low-wage government workforce in 1960 to 15.1 percent today.
In the 100 largest metropolitan areas, the disparity is even more stark: Whites make up 57.8 percent of the population in those cities, and 69.7 percent of high-wage jobs. By contrast, blacks make up 13.8 percent of the population and account for 20.6 percent of low earning jobs.
Mainly, it’s Hispanic and Asian American populations missing out on government jobs. While the proportion of African Americans in high-wage jobs has equalized in recent decades, other non-white populations remain significantly below proportional representation.
Government positions, which usually come with stability and good benefits, have long been a route to upward social mobility, Gardner wrote. Even half a century after the Civil Rights Act, African Americans, Hispanics and Asian Americans remain at a disadvantage in getting those jobs — especially in police departments.