Blacks Lose Clout in Southern Statehouses

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Although more African-Americans live in the South than any other region, Blacks elected to state legislative bodies there have become virtually powerless as those bodies have shifted from Democratic to Republican control.

That’s the conclusion reached in a Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies research brief titled, “Resegregation in Southern Politics?” by senior research associate David A. Bositis.

"Following the election of President Barack Obama, many political observers — especially conservative ones — suggested that the United States is now a post-racial society,” Bositis wrote in the introduction. “Three years later, in the region of the country where most African Americans live, the South, there is strong statistical evidence that politics is resegregating, with African Americans once again excluded from power and representation. Black voters and elected officials have less influence now than at any time since the civil rights era.”

Prior to the 1994 elections, 99.5 percent of southern Black state legislators served in the majority party. Following the 2011 elections, that percentage has been dramatically reduced to 4.8 percent. Most Black state legislators serving outside the South continue to be in the majority.

"In fact, more than 10 times as many Black legislators outside the South serve in the majority compared to their southern counterparts, 162 versus 15, or 54.4 percent versus 4.8 percent,” the Joint Center report found. “All Republican state legislative caucuses are predominantly White, while an increasing number of southern Democratic state legislative caucuses are majority Black.”

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Conservative Whites, now firmly in control of state governing bodies, are exercising their political power. “And since conservative Whites control all the power in the region, they are enacting legislation both neglectful of the needs of African Americans and other communities of color (in health, in education, in criminal justice policy) as well as outright hostile to them, as in the assault on voting rights through photo identification laws and other measures,” the report states.

The erosion of Black political clout in state legislatures mirrors the decline in Democratic power throughout the South, a shift that began with the 1994 GOP landslide and became almost complete in the last election.

From the Post-Reconstruction Era following the Civil War to the 1990s, Republicans controlled only one state legislative body — Tennessee — in the South. During that period, Democrats were so anti-Black that they were known as Dixiecrats. “When southern Democrats in the Old South first engaged in diluting Black votes (i.e., splitting them among multiple districts), their aim was to diminish Black influence,” the report explained. “However, as southern Whites began voting more Republican, the Democrats found themselves having to rely on Black votes to remain in office, and growing numbers of them accepted the goals of the civil rights movement and became ‘national’ Democrats. Accordingly, the purpose of Black vote dilution evolved from thwarting Black political aspirations to protecting White Democrats and Democratic majorities.”

Georgia Democratic State Rep. Tyrone Brooks, an African-American who has been in office for more than three decades, told The Associated Press: “The perception across the state is the Democratic Party is the party of Black folk. When you have a racially polarized body politic, race becomes a major factor.”

That lesson was not lost on the GOP. “Republicans actually encouraged the creation of Black districts because they believed the bleaching process that occurred in districts surrounding Black majority districts would open up opportunities for them,” the report stated. “They supported Black districts not to increase Black influence but to win legislative majorities for themselves.”

And that strategy paid dividends for Republicans.

In 1994, they gained majorities in the Florida state senate and in the lower house in both North and South Carolina; Democrats regained control of the North Carolina House in 1996 as the GOP won control of the Florida House, giving them control of both state bodies. In 1999, Republicans gained control of the Virginia legislature and between 2000 and 2002 won control of the state legislatures in South Carolina and Texas. The Georgia senate switched from Democratic to Republican control in 2002, followed by the House two years later. Tennessee’s state senate went Republican for the first time in 2004.

The net result of the party switches was that Black Democrats, who exerted influence when Democrats controlled the state houses, have been politically neutered.

Of the 318 Black state legislators in the South, only three are Republicans. And those three represent majority White districts. With many Republican policies viewed as anti-Black, it is unlikely that Blacks will switch to the GOP in significant numbers. The best — and perhaps the only — hope for statewide change in the south is changing demographics.

The Joint Center report observed, “Looking at the 2010 Census figures for a few key states shows the significance of the changes taking place. Texas is now a majority-minority state, and between 2000 and 2010, the Hispanic population there increased by 42 percent and the African American population by 24 percent. Florida’s Hispanic population increased by 57 percent, and its African American population by 28 percent. Georgia’s small Hispanic population almost doubled, but more important, its large African American population increased by about 26 percent.”

Clearly, any resurgence of Black political clout in the South will depend on the effectiveness of Black-Latino coalitions. Without those coalitions, Black lawmakers may as well begin whistling Dixie.

George E. Curry, former editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine and the NNPA News Service, is a keynote speaker, moderator, and media coach. He can be reached through his Web site, www.georgecurry.com You can also follow him at www.twitter.com/currygeorge.