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Black Elected Officials and the Nuanced Issue of Expectations

They’re criticized for failing to solve every problem that affects their constituents. But the discrimination and racism they face must be factored in, and they lack access to institutions that could strengthen their hand.

Black members of Congress who were sworn in to their seats in January 1987.
Black members of Congress who were sworn in to their seats in January 1987.
Recently I had a heated exchange with a former journalist for a major newspaper about whether Black elected officials had fulfilled the promise of elected office. She was speaking about mayors and city council members as well as state and national elected officials. The journalist maintained they had not fulfilled that promise. Should African American constituents expect Black public officials, once in office, to do more to address issues like generational poverty and health disparities than other public officials do?

I explained to the journalist that the issue is complicated, nuanced and not a black and white issue, figuratively or literally. It does raise important questions: Is there a critical mass of Black elected officials sufficient to have an impact? And are there institutional and structural barriers that limit what African American officials — or any public officials, for that matter — can realistically be expected to accomplish given the limits of politics?

Let me say from the beginning, I believe that all elected officials should do everything within their power to deliver efficient services and good government to all of their constituents. And all of those constituents should hold high expectations for every public official. Have there been some Black public officials who, as with all groups, sought elected office only as a stepping stone to somewhere else or as a means of empowering or enriching themselves? Of course. But we need to acknowledge that Black elected leaders who are genuinely dedicated to serving the public still face mountains of discrimination and racism, and this must be factored in when assessing their efficacy.

The number of Black elected officials has risen significantly in most categories since the 1960s. According to the National Conference of Black Mayors, for example, there are now more than 640 black mayors representing 48 million citizens across the nation. While the total numbers of Black state and local elected officials nationwide vary from report to report, according to PolitiFact as far back as the year 2000 four southern states collectively had elected nearly 2,000 Black officials: Alabama had 498 in state and local offices; Georgia, 452; Louisiana, 467; and Mississippi, 530.

Even though the numbers of Black elected officials have grown since then, the economic and social conditions of African Americans versus white Americans have not improved significantly. In some areas they have worsened. The National Urban League’s State of Black America report for 2021 reports that median family income for Blacks was about $40,000 per year and net worth was $20,000. In comparison, whites’ median family income was $180,000 and net worth was around $75,000. Further, the Black unemployment rate for adults 20 and older was 5.4 percent, about twice the national rate for whites. There are other disparities in the areas of health, criminal justice and housing. Should Black leaders have been able to do more about these numbers? Maybe.

Here is what they could have done. They could have used their collective voices to advocate for more structural changes. Often the squeaky wheel gets the oil. They also could have partnered with Black scholars with expertise in state and local politics to develop and advance better public policy. There are more than 100 historically black colleges and universities, and Black leaders could have used those campuses as incubators for new ideas, theories and patterns of political participation. When I was an elected official I found students, professors and administrators in Clark Atlanta University’s Political Science Department a rich resource of knowledge and expertise. I don’t recall any other elected official reaching out to them.

But as much as higher education institutions have to offer, there also is a bounty of knowledge among constituents themselves. Recently, for example, I spoke with an Atlanta resident who is working as a consultant for Spelman College on flood-control issues. He shared his ideas with me in hopes that I might suggest to the mayor that siloed approaches to developing affordable housing could be eliminated by factoring in the need to address flooding and provide greenspace for residents. Another resident called about the possibility of the city and county partnering to create a major new park. I would like to see residents trained so they can qualify for jobs associated with these innovations. Not all these ideas reduce poverty, but they would affect the quality of life for residents.

I urge Black elected officials to do more to address the issues of Black America, because many of them ran on platforms promising to address those longstanding issues. I further recommend that they better manage expectations by not overpromising. They should stop claiming to be able to solve income inequality when they don’t control the private sector. They should stop giving constituents the impression that they can change institutions and policies that require the buy-in and participation of other governments and jurisdictions.

Above all, the Black community has a role as well to play in strengthening the hands of Black elected officials. Black public officials should welcome this participation. To ensure accountability, more residents should be active members of their communities. The Black middle class, some of whom were aided by receiving government jobs and contracts, should give back more in the form of funding think tanks, policy institutes and research foundations to assist public officials in governing and legislating. And of course, when Black public officials face attacks by members of the opposition party and corporate America won’t hire them because they have advocated so strongly for issues of concern to African Americans like voting rights, criminal justice reforms and keeping public education public, the Black community must be willing to step in and assist.

Finally, the journalist singled out the late Congressman John Lewis as a public official who died in office rather than step down and make way for another, younger candidate. Where, I asked her, would John have gone? Were there policy institutes in the Black community that could have afforded to hire seasoned legislators or other retiring Black elected officials like Lewis? These and other questions make criticizing African American public officials largely unfair. Without an intellectual infrastructure to propagate progressive policies and a financing mechanism to fund them, it is hard to blame the situation of Black America entirely on African American public officials.

I offer these parting words to my journalist friend and others who are quick to criticize Black elected officials: If you run into former elected officials who have recently left office, ask them how they are doing. When they say “fine,” though they are unemployed and don’t have a sense of who they are now, say, “Thanks for your service.”

Governing’s opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing’s editors or management.
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