Feature: Mostly Black Cities, Mostly White City Halls
The following piece is from the New York Times. It was written by Richard Fausset.
By: Richard Fausset
Since moving to this small city on the eastern flank of Atlanta’s suburban sprawl, Lorna Francis, a hairdresser and a single mother, has found a handsome brick house to rent on a well-groomed cul-de-sac. She has found a good public school for her teenage daughter.
Something Ms. Francis, who is black, has not found is time to register and vote. She was unaware that the most recent mayoral election was held last November.
“Life’s been busy — I’ve been trying to make that money,” Ms. Francis said one morning this month from her two-car garage, where she was micromanaging a particularly complex hairdo for a regular client. “And honestly, I only vote in major elections.”
That kind of disengagement is one of the many reasons that only one of the six elected positions in this municipality of 15,000 is held by an African-American, even as a wave of new black residents has radiated out from nearby Atlanta, creating a black majority here for the first time in the city’s 160-year history.
Disparities between the percentage of black residents and the number of black elected officials are facts of life in scores of American cities, particularly in the South. The unrest that followed the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., has emphasized how much local elections can matter, and prompted a push there for increased black voter participation.
The disparities result from many factors: voter apathy, especially in low-visibility local elections; the civic disconnect of a transient population; the low financial rewards and long hours demanded of local officeholders; and voting systems, including odd-year elections, that are often structured in a way that discourages broad interest in local races.
But Ferguson has become a vivid example of the way a history of political disengagement and underrepresentation can finally turn toxic.
“I have seen this time and again in my research,” Jessica L. Trounstine, a political scientist at the University of California, Merced, said in an email. “The event/situation seems sudden — but really the stage was set long before.”
Whites and blacks tend to agree that the situation is less volatile in Conyers, though many blacks cite frustrations over interactions with the police. But even here, differences in voting between the city and the county that surround it speak vividly to some of the broader issues.
The chief operating officer of Conyers, David Spann, a veteran city employee who is white, said that many of the city’s minority newcomers have, like Ms. Francis, found homes in a local rental market that has exploded in part because of the foreclosure crisis. The city’s homeownership rate is 38 percent, compared with a 66 percent rate for Georgia as a whole.
“When you have rental people, this is nothing against them, but they’re not as involved in the community,” Mr. Spann said.
The lack of local representation on city councils can have deep consequences. 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 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.
In Conyers, not everyone considers the underrepresentation to be a problem. Cleveland Stroud, the sole black member of the City Council, argues that whites have remained in power in part because they have represented their changing constituency well.
“Does a councilperson have to be black to represent black voters?” Mr. Stroud asked.
A number of blacks here said that they were generally pleased with city government. Eleanor Johnson, a 61-year-old chef, said that city officials were helpful to her as she set up her new restaurant, the Olde Town Bistro and Grill, in the historic downtown district. Today, she serves classic Southern cuisine — fried okra, baked chicken — to a clientele that is 85 percent white; she greets many of the customers by name.
“The only thing I can tell you is Conyers has been great to me,” she said.
White leaders here do not claim that the city, in a region where a half-century ago blacks had to drink from separate water fountains, has solved all of its racial problems. But they say that they are in fact an integrated community, particularly after a decade in which the black share of the city population shot from 33 percent to 57 percent. During the same time, whites dropped from 58 percent to 30 percent.
Still, a number of black residents here suspect that the city police tend to single them out because of their race.
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