State Rep. LaTonya Johnson says black candidates like herself face a “different set of rules” when running for office. The Milwaukee Democrat said she needs to appear less black — straightening her hair and dressing more conservatively — to appeal to white voters.
The truth is, for candidates such as Johnson, about 45 percent of their constituents must be black for them to have a chance to win, University of Wisconsin political science professor David Canon said.
Johnson is one of just six black representatives in the Wisconsin state government, all of them elected from Milwaukee and all of them Democrats. Barry Burden, University of Wisconsin political science professor, described them as “a minority within a minority.” He said this position likely makes them feel “locked out” of the legislative process.
In the upcoming legislative session, there will be four black Assembly members and two state senators, including Johnson, who is currently a state representative and ran for the Senate unopposed. Four percent of the state Assembly will be black, compared to the 6.6 percent of Wisconsin residents who are black, and none of them will be black women.
High concentration of black population translates to limited representation
Across the country it is historically difficult for black people to get elected in districts not made up of a substantial amount of black people, Canon said.
“It’s really hard, given the nature of racially polarized voting … for African American representatives to get elected when they don’t come from a district that’s majority African American,” Canon said. “There are limited opportunities in the state that really kind of put the ceiling on the number who will end up having a chance to be elected.”
According to a 2015 U.S. Census Bureau population estimate, black people made up more than 6 percent of the population across Wisconsin, but more than 27 percent of Milwaukee County’s population. In 2010, the last year a comprehensive census was conducted, the concentration was greatest within the city of Milwaukee, with black people making up 40 percent of the population.
“It’s really hard, given the nature of racially polarized voting … for African American representatives to get elected when they don’t come from a district that’s majority African American.” David Canon
Of the 99 Wisconsin state Assembly districts, black legislators represent four of them. State Rep. Mandela Barnes, D-Milwaukee, is one of them.
He said there needs to be more black voices at the table. White legislators are making major decisions, like slashing Foodshare benefits, that affect the lives of the inner city black population without actually understanding the implications of their decisions, he said.
“I’m not going to … introduce some agriculture bill without having ever [stepped] foot on a farm,” Barnes said. “That would be very ridiculous for me and it’s as ridiculous for legislators who have not experienced any bit of inner city life to introduce and vote on bills that negatively impact people in inner city communities.”
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Johnson said she believes bias is a contributor to underrepresentation because people are unlikely to vote for people who do not look like them. She said there is a distinct set of rules that apply when black people are running for a position that do not exist for white people.
Johnson attributes the underrepresentation of minorities in the Assembly to the limited number of seats they can hold. She said the four black legislators in the Assembly, two in the Senate and two Hispanics in the Assembly all come from Milwaukee County.
“When you’re given limited number of seats as to what are designated as [traditionally] minority seats, then you’re going to have a limited number of representation in the State Legislature,” Johnson said. “I am confident that there are African Americans and Hispanics and Asian and Hmong that live in the other 71 counties. Unfortunately, Milwaukee County is the only county where they can be elected.
Rep. David Bowen, D-Milwaukee, said as a representative of one of the state’s most diverse districts, including both a majority black population and a predominately white suburb, he sees preparedness as necessary to represent a district with a large white community. Bowen cited President Barack Obama as a great example of a candidate who drew support from both communities, despite not looking like his white voters.
Barnes said when considering the election of black representatives, the racial divide plays a major role in limiting the number of black people willing to run.
“A lot of times people just immediately [demur] if they don’t live in a majority black district when running,” Barnes said.
The role of redistricting on representation
On Nov. 21, a panel of federal judges found the Republicans’ 2011 state Assembly redistricting efforts “unconstitutionally gerrymandered” to benefit the majority party.
The court’s decision said the district map was unfairly drawn to help the Republican Party instead of representing the political geography.
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Canon said the most advantageous way for black people to maximize the amount of districts they hold seats in would be through drawing district lines to include more districts with small black majorities.
Canon said to achieve a greater percent of representation, lines need to be drawn so that there are less areas with high concentrations and more with concentrations of about 45 percent.
“When you’re given limited number of seats as to what are designated as [traditionally] minority seats, then you’re going to have a limited number of representation in the State Legislature.” LaTonya Johnson
For example, if there is one district with a population of 75 percent black people and two with 30 percent populations, there will most likely only be one black representative elected from the three districts. By redrawing the lines to make three districts with 45 percent black populations, there is a much higher chance of electing three black people.
“Redistricting can really play a significant role in terms of either limiting the number or expanding the number [of black representatives], depending on how you draw the line,” Canon said.
Burden said the geographic distribution of black and white voters across the state makes redistricting to the benefit of black candidates and the entire Democratic Party difficult.
He said beyond Milwaukee, there are also notable black populations in Madison, Beloit and Racine, but the existence of notable groupings in small areas makes it difficult to draw lines that would give black people a chance at equal representation.
Burden said the high concentration would require a redistricting technique called “cracking” to make a noticeable impact on the electability of black representatives. To break up districts and more evenly distribute black populations, some communities would have to be carved out. This would mean dividing people who live on different sides of a street into different districts, Burden said.
“I think changing what the maps look like would get you closer to that 6 percent number [of equal representation],” Burden said. “But I don’t know that it would get you all the way there and it would probably not go any further than that … I think the problem for African Americans is even more severe in Wisconsin in particular because they’re so concentrated in a small number of places.”
Barnes said voter participation also has a major influence on the electability of a black representative. He said while a district may have a majority black population, voter turnout may be majority white, especially in primary races.
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Electability challenge in statewide elections
In America, several states still have not elected any black legislators to the Legislature. Since the 1870 creation of the 15th Amendment, which gave African Americans the right to vote, there have been nine black U.S. senators.
A Congressional Research Service report found the 2015-16 Congress session has its highest level of black representation ever, with black representatives making up 8.8 percent of the two houses combined. This percentage still falls short of equal representation considering that the U.S. Census Bureau estimated that 13.3 percent of the U.S. population were black in 2015.
While Wisconsin has yet to elect a black person to the U.S. Senate, U.S. Rep. Gwen Moore, D-Milwaukee, was the state’s first black person to be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 2005 and is still serving. Johnson said Moore’s Milwaukee victory identifies with the ability to elect black representatives from the high concentrated area, but not the rest of the state.
The only black person to be elected to a statewide position was Vel Phillips as Secretary of State of Wisconsin in 1978, Burden said. In terms of positions like U.S. senator and governor, black people have not found success, but that is partially driven by the lack of black candidates. He said typically when considering people who may run for governor or the U.S. Senate in two years or four years, there is a “supply problem” because very few black people come up as potential candidates.
When Gov. Scott Walker faced a recall in 2012, Lieutenant Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch also had to run in a recall vote. Burden noted the case of Mahlon Mitchell, a black firefighter who ran as a Democrat against Kleefisch. Burden said in some states, black candidates will emerge for a statewide office out of the private sector and find success but that was not the case for Mitchell.
“We tend to think of candidates working their way up from one office to the next as much more conventional, but there are candidates who, because of their personal wealth, they can afford to fund a campaign so they jump to a higher race right away,” Burden said. “But right now it is hard to see what the field team of black candidates in Wisconsin would be.”