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Black Representation In Politics Is Poor Nationwide, Except In State Houses

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

From Congress to city councils, Black Americans are underrepresented at elected positions of all levels. Eighty-nine percent of elected officeholders nationwide are white, according to the Reflective Democracy Campaign research group. Now, a new analysis from them done for NPR shows one place where Black representation comes surprisingly close to parity - statehouses. Mallory Noe-Payne of member station WVTF has more.

MALLORY NOE-PAYNE, BYLINE: Let's be clear; Black Americans are underrepresented in state legislatures, most egregiously in a handful of Southern states. But against a backdrop of much starker inequality, Brenda Carter with the Reflective Democracy Campaign says, it's encouraging to see the progress that's been made at the state level.

BRENDA CARTER: I was pleasantly surprised, to tell you the truth, to see that the levels of Black representation in state legislatures are as high as they are. In 2020, more than half of state legislatures have nearly proportional Black representation or even overrepresentation.

NOE-PAYNE: That's good news to Gilda Cobb-Hunter, president of the National Black Caucus of State Legislators.

GILDA COBB-HUNTER: State legislatures is where the rubber meets the road and where - in my view, where the action is.

NOE-PAYNE: Cobb-Hunter has served in South Carolina's Statehouse for almost three decades. She says much of the nitty-gritty policy work that's now at the forefront of people's minds because of the Black Lives Matter movement happens at the state level - things like voting rights and criminal justice reform. And increasingly, statehouses are also distributing federal COVID-19 funding. In South Carolina, the Legislature has control over how to spend close to $2 billion in coronavirus relief funds.

COBB-HUNTER: We chose to spend a part of the money on testing. There's a carve-out for statewide testing. There's a carve-out to make sure that broadband access is there, particularly in rural areas.

NOE-PAYNE: Research shows that who is at the table for policy decisions like those makes a difference. Beth Reingold at Emory University studies the impact of having more women of color in state legislatures. Generally, Black women are just as well represented in statehouses as Black Americans overall, but Reingold has found that its women of color specifically who are almost always at the forefront of criminal justice reform.

BETH REINGOLD: Another thing we found is that women of color, including Black women, are more likely than any other legislators to sponsor, you know, health and education policy of any kind - you know, any and all kinds of health and education policy.

NOE-PAYNE: Another of their findings - that more Black women in the statehouse translates directly to higher public benefits. None of this surprises Virginia Delegate Cia Price.

CIA PRICE: Wherever you put Black women, we will do the work, and we will succeed in getting the things done.

NOE-PAYNE: Price was elected in 2015. She's part of a wave of women responsible for much of the legislative gains African Americans have made in statehouses in the past five years.

PRICE: My presence in the room has helped make legislation better because I am bringing the stories, the lived experiences, the pain, the trials, the joy of my community to that table.

NOE-PAYNE: But getting more voices like Price's to the table will take concerted effort, says Duke University political scientist Kerry Haynie. He credits much of the initial success in gaining representation to judicial action in the '80s, when the courts stepped in and mandated the creation of majority-minority districts to protect the Black vote. But...

KERRY HAYNIE: There's only so many majority Black districts you can draw.

NOE-PAYNE: Haynie says making gains now will take redrawing those maps so Black voters are no longer packed into just a handful of seats.

HAYNIE: So to see a significant increase in Black representation at the state level in these legislatures is going to require that Blacks are able to run in districts that are not majority Black, and that means being able to attract votes from whites and others.

NOE-PAYNE: Haynie is confident African American candidates can do the work if state parties, Democratic and Republican, will recruit and fund them.

For NPR News, I'm Mallory Noe-Payne in Richmond, Va. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.