Although the number of Black Americans in government has increased, it remains uneven.
The share of Black representatives in the US House roughly matches the share of the US population that is Black, however there are currently only three Black senators and one Black governor in office.
At the state level, only about 10% of state legislators were Black as of 2021.
The recent acceleration of voter suppression legislation since the 2020 election combined with partisan and racist gerrymandering during the 2020 redistricting cycle are likely to exacerbate existing inequalities in government representation for Black Americans.
While the share of Black representatives in the US House roughly matches the share of the US population that is Black, representation is lacking in other areas of government, including the US Senate, state governor offices, local government positions, and of course, the US presidency. There are many different explanations for why Black Americans continue to be underrepresented in elected office despite historical legal and political fights for democratic access and equity, but two key issues include ongoing voter suppression efforts and gerrymandering that diminish the political power of Black voters. Although simply having Black elected officials does not guarantee that the rights and interests of Black Americans will be represented in government, it is one of many indicators of the representativeness of a democracy on which the United States does not perform well.
To learn more about Black representation in government and how it continues to be undermined by voter suppression efforts, read on…
Since its founding, the United States has failed to provide equality to all of its citizens. All Americans should have an equal say in who is chosen to represent them, but the history of voting in the United States started with most Americans being denied the opportunity to have any say in the governance of the nation. Black Americans have fought long and hard to gain the right to cast their ballot free from unnecessary obstacles and the right to be equally represented in government. Notably, a Civil War, several constitutional amendments, and various pieces of legislation have not fully addressed the disenfranchisement faced by many Americans, and particularly Black Americans.
In previous posts, we described the fight for Black voting rights before and after the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. By eliminating some of the hurdles Black voters faced at the ballot box from the time they gained the right to vote up through 1965, the passage of the Act greatly increased the number of registered Black voters and the number of Black elected officials more than doubled in southern states, rising from 72 to 159.
Descriptive representation, or the extent to which an elected representation resembles their constituents, is a key factor to consider when electing a representative. Research has shown that in many cases, African American and Latino legislators, who are underrepresented in Congress relative to the US population, do a better job of representing their African American and Latino constituents than legislators who are not African American or Latino. Notably, Black legislators better represent their Black constituencies in roll call votes by being more attentive to their concerns and are more motivated to advance the interests of Black Americans.
But despite rising numbers of Black representatives, representation remains uneven. While the current percentage of Black elected officials in the House of Representatives is approximately the same as the percentage of the US population that is Black, about 13%, there are only three Black senators and one Black governor currently in office.1
Additionally, as of 2021, only about 10% of state legislators were Black.2 At that time, only three states, Nebraska, West Virginia, and New Hampshire, had legislatures where non-White voters were overrepresented relative to the population.
Notably by contrast, White voters are similarly overrepresented in both “blue” states and “red” states. White voters are overrepresented by about 13.4% in states that voted for Biden and 13.1% in states that voted for Trump.
Underrepresentation of voters of color is not just an issue in Congress and in State government. A 2014 report from Demos describes that there is also a great deal of underrepresentation of Black citizens on city councils. Demos found that one in six Black voters are not fully represented on their city council. Comparatively, only one in sixty-six White voters is not fully represented. Here is what that difference looks like:
Demos points to research done by Paru Shah of the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, to partially explain this gap in representation. Shah notes that two of the factors considered by Black candidates when deciding to run are whether they would be the first member of their demographic group to hold office, as well as Black turnout in the jurisdiction in prior elections. Potential candidates can be deterred from running if they would be breaking a barrier and if they would be running in the face of historically low Black turnout.
Of course, since that article was published in 2001, it is almost certain that other factors have emerged as key issues not only in decisions to run for office, but also in who ultimately wins an election should they choose to run. One of these factors likely includes the impacts of gerrymandering, or the drawing of congressional and state legislative district lines to advantage one group over another. Because of residential segregation and the tendency of Black voters to vote for Democrats, Republicans have used gerrymandering to reduce the political power of Black voters. Because predominantly Black districts often elect Black representatives, gerrymandering that targets Black communities can contribute to less Black representation in the House of Representatives and state legislatures. As a recent example, in the 2020 redistricting cycle, Governor DeSantis, the Republican governor of Florida, proposed and ultimately passed maps that eliminated two House districts that were represented by Black representatives in Congress.
It should be noted that racial discrimination in redistricting is prohibited at the federal level by both the Constitution and the Voting Rights Act. Furthermore, in Florida specifically, the Fair Districts amendment to the state constitution prohibits gerrymandering, including gerrymandering that reduces the voting rights of racial groups. However, the Supreme Court’s erosion of the Voting Rights Act in 2013, when they effectively dismantled the preclearance requirement in Shelby v. Holder, and again in 2019 when they effectively allowed partisan gerrymandering in Rucho v. Common Cause, has made it harder to challenge gerrymandered maps on the basis of racial discrimination. Without the need for preclearance, many states and jurisdictions with a long history of Black voter suppression were able to enact new laws and maps that made it harder for many, especially Black voters, to vote without any federal oversight. And although unfair maps have been challenged in the courts, many successfully, the process of litigation can be costly and lengthy with no guarantees. Indeed, as of January 2023, the 2020 redistricting cycle is far from settled with 55 lawsuits, 32 of which challenge congressional maps, still outstanding. Until these cases are settled, voters from these states are subject to unfair voting laws and maps. Moreover, because Black voters are more likely to vote for Democrats, Republicans are able to justify gerrymandered maps that dilute the political power of Black Americans in courts on the basis that they are partisan-motivated rather than racially motivated, making it harder to challenge racism in the redistricting process via litigation.
Simply having Black Americans in elected office does not necessarily mean that Black voters face no obstacles to voting or that their varied interests are adequately represented in government. However, descriptive representation is one, among many, indicators of a democracy that reflects the people it serves. And deliberate attempts to diminish Black representation in congress and state legislatures through gerrymandering and other racist voter suppression tactics indicate that our democracy has and will continue to poorly reflect Black Americans it is supposed to serve until sufficient reforms can be implemented to create the fair and equitable system that is supposed to be the promise of the United States.
1Wes Moore was elected governor of Maryland in November 2022, making him the only currently serving Black governor in the US. He is only the fifth Black governor in U.S. history and only the third to be democratically elected, the other two having advanced to the role when the democratically elected governor stepped down or was removed from office before the end of the term.
2Updated data on state legislators following the 2022 election has not yet been released. It is worth noting, however, that the share of Black state legislators has remained relatively unchanged since at least 2015, when it was at 9%.