African Americans and American Politics 2002: The Maturation Phase

By Kilson, Martin L. | National Urban League. The State of Black America, January 1, 2002 | Go to article overview

African Americans and American Politics 2002: The Maturation Phase


Kilson, Martin L., National Urban League. The State of Black America


There is no better point of departure for portraying the maturation phase of the political status of African Americans in the overall American political process than examining this year's 30th Annual Report on Black Elected Officials by the Washington-based think tank, the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, and written by its senior political analyst, Dr. David Bositis. Under the deft leadership of Eddie Williams, the Joint Center has provided the indispensable service of tracking both the growth and overall comparative systemic attributes of African Americans holding the several kinds of political office in the United States since 1970. All Americans genuinely interested in the growth of equality and diversity in political officeholding in our American democracy are greatly in its debt for having skillfully performed this function for a generation and a half.

An Overview of Black Elected Officials

As the militant phase of the Civil Rights Movement began to gain a favorable public policy and legislative response from the United States federal government by, say, 1964, there were around 350 black elected officials. When those halcyon days ended and the Joint Center conducted its first census of black elected officials (BEOs) in 1970, that number had reached 1,469. The steady shift in the politics of AfricanAmerican life between 1970 and today-from full-fledged civil rights activism to a mixed-politics of both civil rights activism and sophisticated black electoral mobilization-has produced the unprecedented number of 9,040 BEOs the Joint Center found for the year 2000. This figure amounts to between two percent and three percent of all United States elected officials. [See Table I for an aggregate portrait of BEOs in the United States from 1970 to 2000]

Viewed in regional terms, some 869 BEOs, or 9.7 percent of the total represent Northeast states; 1,636, or 18.2 percent, represent Midwest states; and 326, or 3.6 percent represent Western states. Not surprisingly, the South recorded the largest 30-year growth in BEOs, with 6,170, or 68.6 percent of the total. The reasons for this are plain enough. First, about 55 percent of all African Americans live in the South. secondly, local, state, city, and federal officeholding jurisdictions include large concentrations of African Americans. And thirdly, the necessity of ethnic-bloc political and electoral mobilization is still a reality of AfricanAmerican life today-just as Irish-American, Jewish-American, PolishAmerican, Italian-American, Latino-American, Chinese-American, WASP-American, etc., ethnic-bloc political and electoral mobilization are still realities in overall American life.

Keep in mind that ever since the rise of an ethnically pluralistic American political culture in the post-Civil War era, when Irish-Catholic Americans became a major force in the urban industrial working classand were joined from the 189Os onward by Italian-Americans, PolishAmericans, Jewish-Americans, Chinese-Americans, JapaneseAmericans, etc.-the American political culture has allowed democratic space for ethnic-bloc political and electoral mobilization. The WASP host cultural group in our American democracy first designed and utilized electoral methods based on ethnic patterns. WASPs did this initially in the pre-Civil War era with political exclusion purposes in mind; they manipulated voting boundaries or districts to keep down the votes of competing religious groups among the WASP sector. Then, from the post-Civil War era onward, competing WASP politicians also manipulated electoral districts for political inclusion purposes, recruiting Irish Catholic voters who might favor Republican Party candidates in industrial cities or states over Democratic Party candidates. This WASP-initiated manipulation of electoral mobilization through the design and redesign of voting districts became known as "gerrymandering," after Elbridge Gerry, the 18th-century WASP highborn Massachusetts merchant who had an extraordinary but deeply checkered career in the political life of the young nation. …

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