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Non-white representation on America’s city councils

Source: LA Times

In a recent post at Pacific Standard, I examined the relationship between the percent of African Americans in a city population and the percent on the city council. What the evidence suggested was that Ferguson, Mo., was a serious outlier. As of 2001, just over 50% of its population was African American while none of its city council was. Today, 67% of the population is African American, while 17% (1 member) of the city council is. This is one of the largest representational gaps for African Americans in any U.S. city.

But what the chart also showed is that overall, there’s a fairly strong representational relationship for African Americans. When a city is majority African American, it tends to have a majority African American city council.

Jessica Trounstine provided me with some additional data generated from the International City/County Management Association‘s database from 2011. This first plot below shows the percentage of each city’s population that is African American and the percentage of the city council that is African American in cities with at least 10,000 residents. The red diagonal line shows where the data points would lie if the percentage in the population mirrored the percentage on the city council.

Source: Jessica Trounstine/ICMA
Source: Jessica Trounstine/ICMA

The “ideal” line runs right through the data, suggesting overall a pretty healthy similarity between ideal and actual representation. Each additional percent of the population that is African American translates to about 0.8 additional percent of the city council. But how does this look for other racial groups? Below is a chart that solely examines Latino representation:

Source: Jessica Trounstine/ICMA
Source: Jessica Trounstine/ICMA

This looks very different from African American representation. The vast majority of cities are below the line. Each additional percent of the population that is Latino only translates to about an additional half percent of the city council. Among Asian Americans, each additional percent in the population only translates to about 0.4 percent on the city council.

Why the differences? Why do African Americans seem to be better represented in city governments (Ferguson notwithstanding) than other racial minority groups?

Zoltan Hajnal and Jessica Trounstine examined this and found evidence that low voter turnout had a particularly large effect on the representation of Asian Americans and Latinos. Indeed, African American and white turnout are very similar (at least in presidential elections), while Asian American and Latino turnout tend to trail the others significantly.

It is also the case that there is a time lag in representation in government. African Americans have comprised a fairly stable percentage of the U.S. population over time, while the Latino percentage has grown substantially in many communities and states recently and looks to continue doing so. Given entrenched incumbents and strong local political machines, we wouldn’t expect a local government to immediately reflect demographic shifts in the community, even if it will tend to over time.

This is a source of considerable political strife in places like south Los Angeles County, where the Latino population has grown rapidly but many political offices are still held by African Americans. Compton, for example, had an all African American city council in 2011, even while its population was 65% Latino.

Relatedly, there are African American political machines in some areas with a longer history of activism and voter mobilization. African American political elites recruited the retired Rep. Mervyn Dymally to run for state Assembly in an open south LA district in 2002 in large part to keep the seat in African American hands, as the district had become heavily Latino. There are certainly some Latino and Asian American organizations that exist along similar lines, but they’re somewhat newer to the political scene in many communities.

All this is to say that the story of racial representation in the U.S. is far from as simple as black and white. There are many facets of this issue and many different causes, and possible remedies, for poor racial representation.

Seth Masket is an associate professor and chair of the Department of Political Science at the University of Denver. He specializes in political parties, state legislatures, campaigns and elections, and social networks.



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