Why Are So Many Black Towns Run by White City Councils?

African-Americans are moving into suburban Atlanta in droves, but their representation in municipal politics is fairly weak, according to a recent New York Times report.

The Times tells the story of Lorna Francis who moved into Conyers, Ga., and found a nice brick home to rent and a good school for her daughter to attend. Francis, however, hasn't registered to vote, nor was she aware that the last mayoral election was last November.

“Life’s been busy — I’ve been trying to make that money,” Francis told the Times. “And honestly, I only vote in major elections.”

According the U.S. Census, 56 percent of Conyers' population is white but only one of the six elected positions in the municipality of 15,000 is held by an African-American. Cleveland Stroud, the city's sole African-American City Council member, says that whites have remained in power because they serve their African-American constituents well. “Does a councilperson have to be black to represent black voters?” Mr. Stroud asked.

That depends on who you else you ask.

In Ferguson, Mo., where the shooting death of unarmed Michael Brown sparked tense racial unrest and revealed the dearth of African-American representation in its city government, voter registration drives are taking off. The Times article also mentions how many blacks in Conyers complain about their interactions with the police. Of the 60 officers on Conyers' police force, only eight are black. Conyers city government staff isn't that diverse, either. Of the 170 city employees, only 21 are black.

The dearth of political participation by African-Americans in towns like Conyers or Ferguson can have serious consequences. According to the Times:

City Councils are one of the easiest ways for community members to enter politics. The nation’s municipalities spend more than a trillion dollars a year, and city councils have much say in how that is spent.

And Ferguson, where blacks said they were the victims of a system that issued more arrest warrants per capita than any other city in Missouri, is a prime example of how local governments can have huge impacts on people’s lives.

According to the International City/County Council Management Association, among 340 American cities where more than 20 percent of the population is black, two had councils on which blacks were overrepresented compared with their population; 209 were within one seat of their population; and 129 underrepresented blacks by more than one seat.

There are number of reasons cited in The Times article why black Conyers residents are not as politically active in local politics. One that stands out is that the town's councilmembers are paid a mere $75 per month and only white-collar professionals can afford to take on those positions. Most of the town's newest members are working-class people who don't have the means or the time to run for public office.

Another challenge is that local elections aren't held during the same year as national elections. For some residents, it's hard to keep track of when local elections are taking place. It's a complex issue that will take years to unravel.

But, as more blacks move into suburban communities where their political representation is sparse, the next question is this: when will African-Americans finally enter the political realm of their new communities and assume the political power their majority populations suggests they can wield?

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