In 1991, more than a century after the passage of the 15th Amendment securing African-Americans’ right to vote, issues of race and politics are still prominent nationally. Amendments to the 1982 Voting Rights Act have been interpreted to require racial gerrymandering, bringing the drawing of electoral district boundaries into sharper focus than at any time in recent history.
Because more officeholders are elected to broad policy-making positions in city government than in any other arena, it is appropriate to look at the experience of African-Americans on city councils to determine how successful black politicians are in the state and whether that success results from racial gerrymandering. Our survey covers all 459 California cities in existence in the spring of 1991 and is supplemented by official 1990 Census data.
Black political progress in California has been relatively rapid in the past two decades. In 1970, the top African-American politicians in the state consisted of one congressman, one state senator and five members of the Assembly. In local government there were one supervisor, two mayors and 27 city council members. During the ‘70s, state Sen. Mervyn Dymally was elected lieutenant governor and Wilson Riles was elected to the statewide office of superintendent of public instruction. In 1978, Rep. Yvonne Brathwaite Burke lost a close race for attorney general to George Deukmejian. In 1982, Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley lost an extremely tight gubernatorial race to Deukmejian. Assembly Speaker Willie Brown has been the dominant legislative presence in the ‘80s.
By 1991, four members of California’s congressional delegation were black, as were two state senators and seven members of the Assembly. There were eight black county supervisors, 15 mayors and 55 city council members.
From one perspective, the 70 African-Americans (22 of them women) serving on California’s city councils make up only 2.9% of the state’s elected mayors and council members. However, when you look at the cities in which blacks hold office, the picture changes. Black mayors and council members serve in some of the state’s largest cities.
Black officials represent 6.4 million Californians overall (21.4%), or 4.8 million voting-age residents (22%). These politicians now represent three times the number of African-Americans in the state. Even excluding Los Angeles, black mayors and council members represent 12% of California’s 1990 population.
But how does California’s urban political geography affect the contours of black political representation? African-Americans make up 7.4% of the state’s population and 6.7% of the more politically relevant population--those 18 and older. Just two cities in the state have a bare African-American majority, Inglewood and Compton. In three cities, Richmond, Oakland and East Palo Alto, blacks have a plurality of the electorate. There are only 36 other cities where blacks make up 10% or more of the population. A majority (59%) of the state’s 459 cities have a black population under 2%.
Given this demographic dispersion, how well do African-American candidates fare in winning mayoral and council seats? The answer is, reasonably well. Although 28 of the black politicians now in office have been elected in cities in which blacks are 20% or more of the population, 41 of the black mayors and council members have been elected in cities with a black voting-age population under 20%.
Reflecting their population concentration in two geographic areas, 70% of the state’s black city politicians reside in Los Angeles County or in the San Francisco Bay Area. But Bakersfield, Stockton, Fresno and Modesto all have black council members, although none of these cities has a black population above 10%. In Oroville, Tehama and Modesto, each with an African-American population under 3%, voters have chosen a black to represent them.
But can black politicians get elected in California if they have to run at-large in citywide elections? Is California’s electorate so racially polarized that blacks have to be protected and isolated in districts specially gerrymandered by race? Is California a mirror image of some areas of the American South where courts have imposed district elections because black politicians seemed unable to win in at-large elections?
In statewide elections, which are at-large by definition, African-American candidates have been successful. Black candidates also do well in at-large municipal elections, winning the mayor’s office in the first and sixth largest cities--Los Angeles and Oakland. In addition, 69% of California’s black mayors and city council members are chosen in at-large elections. Of the 22 remaining city council members elected in districts, 16 are chosen in cities that have, or recently had, a black mayor elected at-large.
Is there still an argument to make for district elections in California’s municipal elections? Yes, as a device to cut the costs of campaigning and to make officeholders responsive to a smaller constituency.
However, there is now fairly clear evidence that racially gerrymandered districts are emphatically not necessary for black political success in California.
Blacks are the fourth largest racial group in the state, with only 6.7% of the state’s voters; promoting policies in which race is the deciding consideration in how people vote would surely be self-destructive. African-American politicians with the talent and ambition to move to higher county, state and national office in California can do so only with the cooperation of multiracial coalitions. The best place to begin to create these coalitions is at the local level in at-large or district contests where race is not the primary focus of the election.
One key question remaining for the 1990s is the shape black political coalitions will take as growing Latino and Asian populations assume a large share of California’s increasingly complex multiracial society.