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Posted 09.12.07


Study Shows Black Politicians Gain Seats, But Not Leadership Positions, In State Assemblies

COLUMBIA, MO - Researchers examining trends in state politics have found that during the 1990s, African-American officeholders had difficulty translating election to public office into positions of authority such as committee chairs in state legislatures. The findings, said a University of Missouri-Columbia faculty member who participated in the study, provide somewhat of a "mixed picture" of political gains by African Americans.

"I think people tend to focus on the national level, on the congressional level, looking at Senator Barack Obama as being a good barometer of black America and the American political process," said Marvin Overby, professor of political science in MU's College of Arts and Science. "But, I think we get a much better picture by looking at state data - especially by looking at the extent to which African Americans have been able to turn elections into positions of power within state political institutions."

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Overby, along with Byron D'Andra Orey, associate professor of political science at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and Christopher W. Larimer, assistant professor of political science at the University of Northern Iowa, found that from 1989 through 1999 African Americans were under represented as committee chairs in state legislatures throughout the United States. The findings are viewed as "mixed" because despite overall under representation, African Americans still occupied a significant number of leadership positions on the most important committees and were, in fact, over represented on committees that focused on social services.

"It's hard to be ecstatic," Overby said. "You can look and see a glass that's half empty or one that's half full. There was a large increase in the number of black legislators serving in state legislatures during the 1990s, but only limited success in translating those gains into positions where they had their hands on the levers of power."

The researchers examined data from the Council of State Governments, the 1993 Black Elected Officials directory and 1999-2000 Directory of African American Legislators. The study focuses on a pivotal period of political change - from the late '80s, just prior to the most extensive round of redistricting that resulted in large numbers of African-American officeholders, to the late '90s, the end of major redistricting overhauls. During that period, the total number of African-American state legislators increased almost 31 percent, from 438 to 573. The number of African-American committee chairs, however, remained practically constant; there were a total of 115 chairs in 1989 and 116 by '99. Of that total, 19 at one time or another chaired committees that dealt mostly with social services "because it was likely in the best interests of their constituents," Overby said.

He said the lack of additional chair appointments, despite overall election gains, resulted from a nearly simultaneous increase in Republican control of state legislatures during the '90s. Few African-American legislators are members of the GOP, Overby said, which is a "reminder that we still have a polarized party system and that black Americans continue to be heavily Democratic at both the mass and elite levels."

The study, "African-American Committee Chairs in American State Legislatures," is being published in the September issue of Social Science Quarterly.



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