City Councils Reflect Community Diversity: This Is the First in a Series of Stories on America's City Councils in Profile

By Woodwell, Bill | Nation's Cities Weekly, July 14, 2003 | Go to article overview

City Councils Reflect Community Diversity: This Is the First in a Series of Stories on America's City Councils in Profile


Woodwell, Bill, Nation's Cities Weekly


America's city councils are growing increasingly diverse, according to a study commissioned by the National League of Cities. Between 1979 and 2001, the study shows, the percentage of people of color serving on councils has increased in cities of all sizes.

Who sits on city councils in this country? Why do they run for office? What are the problems and challenges they experience, and bow do they assess their performance? In Two Decades of Continuity and Change in American City Councils, author James Svara, professor of political science and public administration at North Carolina State University, examined these and other questions about city councils in the United States in collaboration with NLC.

In addition, he set out to determine how councils and their members have changed over the past two decades, drawing on earlier NLC studies in 1979 and 1989. This is the first in a series of articles that will report on the results of the research.

Racial, Ethnic Diversity on the Rise

Svara's research shows that diversity of city councils increased in cities of all sizes between 1979 and 2001. The city-size characteristics of the sample used in each of the surveys differed, so comparing representation among cities in the same size categories provides a more accurate picture of change. The three size categories used by Svara in the analysis were "small" (population: 25,000-69,999); "medium-sized" (70,000-199,999); and "large" (200,000 and up). In each category of cities, the percentage of council members of color more than doubled.

Seeing the biggest jump in their representation on America's city councils were Hispanics. Hispanic representation on city councils rose in cities of all sizes. In 1979, Hispanics were around one percent of all council members in small and medium-sized cities, and three percent in the large cities. By 2001 this had climbed to 2 percent, 6 percent, and 11 percent in the three groupings of cities.

From 1979 to 1989, African-American representation on city councils increased from 5 to 8 percent. In 2001, the percentage of African-Americans on city councils remained the same, at 8 percent. The 2001 proportions were 9 percent in medium-sized cities and 18 percent in large cities. Among African-American council members in 2001, 43 percent were women, an increase from just 18 percent in 1989. By comparison, women made up 28 percent of white council members in 2001, about the same as in the previous survey.

The only people of color seeing a decline in council membership in recent years is Asian Americans, who went from almost 3 percent in 1989 to less than one percent in 2001.

Gordon Quan, President of Asian Pacific American Municipal Officials (APAMO), mayor pro tern, Houston, Texas, explains that the increased population of Asian Pacific Americans (APAs) in this country has allowed some communities to create their own support systems and to remain segregated, whereas the smaller, spread out population of APAs in the past forced many to interact with their community.

Quan feels that "although APAs are relatively new to America and the political process, it is imperative to engage them in the civic process of involvement. …

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