Losing Ground

Three decades after the peak of the civil-rights movement, the number of African-American elected officials in the nation’s most populous state is shrinking dramatically. Is California an anomaly, or an early warning of a growing trend?


In the late 1970s, things were looking good for African Americans in California politics. For the first time ever, black mayors were in power in Los Angeles and Oakland. The lieutenant governor and the state superintendant of schools were both black. Assemblyman Willie Brown was on the brink of becoming not only the first African-American speaker of the assembly, but one of the most powerful in the state’s history.

Cut to 2000. Oakland — a city in which blacks are the largest racial group, making up 41 percent of the overall population — has its first white mayor in more than 20 years. Los Angeles’ mayor is also white, and there’s not one African American running for citywide office in the 2001 election. Neither is there a single African American in statewide office. The total number of blacks in the 120-seat state legislature — seven — is the lowest since 1970.

Three decades after the civil-rights movement’s heyday, the number of black political officeholders in the nation’s most populous state is shrinking — and by some accounts, black political clout is shrinking even further. California is often the bellwether for national trends, and this erosion of blacks’ hard-won gains in government just could be another.

The potential consequences of that erosion are alarming many black leaders. Recent bills aiming to reinstate some state affirmative-action practices and to require data collection on racial profiling, for instance, were both vetoed by Gov. Gray Davis. “The feeling among African Americans,” says Alice Huffman, head of the California NAACP, “is that if we were as potent as we used to be he wouldn’t dare veto that kind of legislation.”

Many black politicians in California prefer not even to discuss the issue publicly. Several contacted by the MoJo Wire for this story either refused to comment or did not return phone calls.

Perhaps the most important factor behind the drop in the number of black elected officials is the growth among another group: Latinos. Fueled by immigration and a high birthrate, the Latino share of California’s population has more than doubled since 1970, from 12 percent to at least 29 percent.

Latinos started becoming a major political force in the 1990s, thanks largely to Proposition 187, a 1994 ballot measure which would have denied services like public education, health care, and welfare to illegal aliens. The threat of Prop 187 — which eventually passed, but has been largely invalidated by a federal judge — poured gasoline on the already-flickering flames of Latino political participation. Since 1992, the number of Latinos in the state legislature has more than tripled to 22, helped along by the half-million new Latino voters who have registered since 1994.

But in their surge forward, Latinos seem to be elbowing African Americans out of the way. Huffman now sees blacks and Latinos as political rivals, “which is kind of disappointing, because somehow I thought we were going to join forces … instead of running against each other.” In such traditionally black power bases in Southern California as Glenwood and Compton, she points out, blacks have lost seats to Latinos in recent years.

Sheer numbers alone, however, don’t explain why Latino gains should come at African Americans’ expense. While Latinos have increased as a percentage of the population, blacks’ percentage has not decreased: The African-American fraction of California’s population has held steady at about 7 percent for decades. The growth in Latino percentage, in fact, has come at the expense of whites, whose share of the population has shrunk from 77 percent in 1970 to 52 percent in 1997.

Nonetheless, whites as a group continue to hold a large majority of state legislative seats, not to mention most federal elected offices. Why, then, since African Americans’ share of the population has not changed, has their number of officeholders declined?

“It’s a question of distribution,” explains Bruce Cain, director of the Institute for Governmental Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. Many African Americans are leaving urban centers like Los Angeles and moving to the suburbs. When African Americans move out of a neighborhood, Latinos often move in. So when an African-American seat is lost, it’s frequently lost to a Latino.

Those African Americans who move often go to majority white suburbs where they form a small minority and seldom run for office. The political result of this geographic redistribution means blacks have lost clout in their traditional districts while remaining politically invisible in the new ones.

Blacks and Latinos thus not only find themselves competing for the same geographic turf, but for the same political turf as well. Latino Democrats outnumber Latino Republicans by 3-to-1. Among African Americans, the ratio is 10-to-1. That leaves Latinos and blacks aiming for seats in districts likely to vote Democratic, and largely conceding Republican districts to whites.

Outside forces aren’t the whole explanation, however. Some of the drop in the number of black officeholders appears to be due to the changing wants and needs of African-American voters a generation after the civil-rights movement hit its peak.

Gains from the 1960s left African-American politicians and voters powerfully energized well into the 1970s and 1980s, recalls Kerman Maddox, a Los Angeles-based African-American political commentator and consultant. In the early 1980s, Maddox recalls, many blacks thought, “We’ve got the Voting Rights Act, we’ve got people running for office, so let’s elect as many African Americans as possible because the argument was: If you elect people who look like you, by extension they’ll do a better job of representing your interests.”

But times have changed. Maddox teaches at Los Angeles Southwest College, and his students see things differently. “During their lifetime the people who have represented them are people of color. The question in their minds is: Why can’t you fix Crenshaw Boulevard? Why can’t you make Compton work?” he says. “Their argument is: Let’s not talk about electing African-American representatives, let’s talk about electing the best kind of people.”

Cain agrees. Black candidates, he says, no longer necessarily have the automatic support of the black community. “Black voters are looking beyond descriptive representation to what policies are being produced, and I think in some ways they’ve become more demanding as voters than they were 20 or 30 years ago,” says Cain. “The symbolic pride of simply having an African American in office is not enough. You’ve got to deliver on education, you’ve got to deliver on crime.”

There may be a further attitudinal change at work, according to Ed Blakely, dean of the New School in New York City and one of several black candidates who lost the last Oakland mayoral race to former state governor Jerry Brown. Compared to other parts of the country, he points out, California now has a large, successful African-American middle class facing relatively little prejudice. The result is a loss of solidarity in the face of adversity that was a source of political strength in times past. California still has plenty of poor African Americans, but those who have the resources to run for office, says Blakely, may not have much in common with them.

Nationwide, the picture for African Americans in politics is more positive. The number of African Americans in elected office has been increasing steadily since 1970, according to the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies (JCPES). But the downward trend in California may well be an early warning for the rest of the country.

The same demographic forces seen in California are at work across the nation. People of Hispanic origin (of all races) in the US increased from 14.6 million in 1980 to 32 million today. Latinos are visible on the national political stage as never before, and both presidential candidates are making unprecedented efforts to win over Latino voters. With a particularly large Latino population and a particularly small African-American one, California has been the first to feel the effect.

It seems likely that changes in attitude among California’s African-American voters will surface elsewhere as well. According to the JCPES, the bulk of the increase in black elected officials came from a few states, mostly in the South, where the increases were dramatic. Remove the seven states with the biggest increases in black officials, and there was actually a small net decrease in the remaining states. It may be that the solidarity that leads blacks to preferentially vote for other blacks is still alive in certain areas, particularly in the South, but on the wane elsewhere.

Many African-American leaders in California agree that the future of black politics lies in building coalitions with other groups, especially Latinos. And in fact, Latinos and African Americans have a history of political cooperation in California. Some of the first Latinos to rise to political prominence in the state were helped along by African Americans. Mervyn Dymally, who served in the 1970s as California’s first and so far its only African-American lieutenant governor, was a mentor to many minority hopefuls, including former Assemblyman Richard Alatorre and Democratic Party Chairman Art Torres.

Today, though, the relationship can be tense. “There’s this perception among many African Americans that now that Latinos have achieved political power, they are less interested in coalition politics than African Americans were when they were in positions of power,” says Maddox.

Still, the two groups share plenty of interests. Racial profiling, for example, affects both communities. “‘Driving while black’ is really ‘driving while black or brown,'” says Reginald Jones-Sawyer Sr., chair of the California Democratic Party’s African-American caucus.

Finding a way to join forces with Latinos, says Maddox, is more than a good idea — it’s a matter of political survival for Californian African Americans. If coalition-building fails, says Maddox, “the loser will be the black community.”