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Blacks still underrepresented at all levels of politics

GEORGE E. CURRY | 3/16/2015, 9:33 a.m.
Although Blacks have made tremendous improvement in holding elected office since passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, they remain ...
Spencer Overton, president of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies

WASHINGTON (NNPA) – Although Blacks have made tremendous improvement in holding elected office since passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, they remain underrepresented at the federal, state and local levels, according to a report scheduled to be released Tuesday by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.

“Based on the most recent data, African Americans are 12.5% of the citizen voting age population, but they make up a smaller share of the U.S. House (10%), state legislatures (8.5%), city councils (5.7%), and the U.S. Senate (2%),” the report said.

The 38-page report titled, 50 Years of The Voting Rights Act: The State of Race in Politics, was produced for the center by four prominent political scientists: Khalilah Brown-Dean, Zoltan Hajnal, Christina Rivers and Ismail White.

Joint Center President Spencer Overton said in a message introducing the report that there is a heated debate over: How much progress have we made since 1965? How much more work is there to do?

He said, “These are contested questions, subject to ideology and opinion. A study published in Perspectives on Psychological Science, for example, shows that on average Whites and African Americans differ on the amount of racial progress we have made, with Whites now believing anti-White bias is more prevalent than anti-Black bias. We have elected an African American president, but studies have shown that some government officials are less likely to respond to inquiries from citizens with seemingly Black or Latino names. The questions are also at the core of many ongoing debates about voting rights in the U.S. Supreme Court and Congress, as well as in many states, counties and municipalities.”

What is not contested is that the Voting Rights Act of 1965 changed the political landscape for African Americans, with the number of Black elected officials leaping from fewer than 1,000 in 1965 to now more than 10,000.

The change was particularly dramatic in the South, where 55 percent of African Americans live.

“Since the 1870s, white elected officials in many parts of the South had used violence, literacy tests, interpretation tests, poll taxes, and other devices to exclude African Americans,” the report recounted. “The Justice Department filed 71 voting rights lawsuits in the Deep South before 1965, but cases were typically complex, time-consuming, and expensive. When a court struck down one type of discriminatory device, local officials simply erected a different device that effectively excluded most African Americans.”

Selma, Alabama, and surrounding Dallas County was typical. Deploying rigged tests about the U.S. Constitution and a requirement that voters be in “good character,” as defined by White registrars, a White minority was able to suppress the Black majority.

In 1965, more than half of Dallas County was Black. Of the county’s 15,000 voting-age Blacks, only 156 were registered to vote. By contrast, two-thirds of voting-age Whites were registered in the county. Throughout Alabama, only 19.4 percent of African Americans were registered. In neighboring Mississippi, just 6.4 percent of Blacks were registered.

As part of a massive voter registration campaign in 1965, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and local residents launched a Selma-to-Montgomery March to dramatize the lack of access to the ballot box.