WASHINGTON – Arizona is one of 14 states where African-Americans make up 1 percent of the legislature or less – but it’s in the middle of the pack for disparity between blacks and their state lawmakers.
A comparison of state demographics and 2015 legislative data from the National Conference of State Legislatures showed that blacks were underrepresented in 42 statehouses. The disparity between population and representation ranged from Delaware’s 15.7 percentage point gap to a negligible 0.1 shortfall in Wyoming.
Arizona – with a black population of 4.2 percent and 1 percent legislative representation – had the 16th-largest negative disparity among states. That was in line with the U.S. as a whole, which has a 13 percent black population, but where average statehouse representation is just 9 percent black.
Only eight states had legislative representation equal to or higher than their African-American populations, with Illinois leading the way with a 3.7 percentage points lead.
Leaders and political scientists say black voices matter.
“When we, or any group, does not have representation, their ideals, their thoughts or their issues are not brought to the forefront,” said Quiana Dickenson, chairman of the Arizona Democratic Party’s African-American Caucus. “When you are not represented, when you are not brought to the table, your voices are not heard.”
She said issues such as health care and income disparity that disproportionately affect African-Americans aren’t always heard as a result.
“Absolutely, it’s a big deal that you only have one legislator that is African-American,” said Rep. Reginald Bolding – the one legislator who is African-American in Arizona.
Bolding, a Laveen Democrat, was quick to say he represents all the people in his district, regardless of their race, but he said he can be a voice for issues specific to the black population.
University of Arizona political science professor Suzanne Dovi said it’s important for African-Americans to feel represented at a time when issues such as disproportionate jail populations and harassment by police are in the national spotlight.
She pointed to the debate over the Confederate flag as an example of how race can prevent lawmakers from understanding and acting on issues that a diverse legislature might handle differently. Racial parity builds trust in the relationship between the government and the public, she said.
But it’s not always easy for minority candidates to get elected. Redistricting, voter identification laws and Arizona’s relatively small African-American population have led to a shortage of black voices in the Legislature, according to politicians and political scientists.
Minority populations aren’t always concentrated enough to have real voting power in a district, said Michael Li, senior counsel at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice. And even if they are, districts can be redrawn to split up this concentration, he said.
“For people to make a district work, you have to have enough of a bloc,” he said. “Sometimes those neighborhoods aren’t drawn that way.”
Li said African-Americans need to make up 35 to 40 percent of a district to control its election results. But that can be difficult in the West, where there is less history of segregated neighborhoods than there is in the East.
When minority voters move to a state, it doesn’t necessarily mean there will be more minority representation, Li said, as those voters are more likely to just take over a district controlled by another non-white group.
Bolding said people need to understand how deeply the government affects their lives and do more than just vote.
That means getting involved in political campaigns so they can learn about the process and eventually become staffers once a candidate is elected. This lets them directly influence state politics and primes them for their own possible candidacies to continue the cycle.
Dickenson believes that targeted recruiting efforts are the best bet for blacks, adding that it’s important to have minority representation in all levels of government, from school boards to the statehouse. She said the African-American Caucus is working to recruit minorities for campaigns but admitted that it “is going to take a couple years to push forward.”
“They (minorities) have to be recruited, they have to be trained, they have to be invested in” just like everyone else, she said. “We decided that this was the direction that we were going to go in.”