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Black underrepresentation is a national problem — but it's way worse in Ferguson

The St. Louis area chapter of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists marches in Ferguson on August 17.
The St. Louis area chapter of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists marches in Ferguson on August 17.
Bilgin Sasmaz/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

If you've been following the situation in Ferguson, MO, you likely know just how underrepresented the city's black majority is in government. While the city itself is 67 percent black, just one out of six city councilors (17 percent) is black, as are only 3 out of 53 police officers (5.7 percent).

Underrepresentation of minority communities is government is a problem nationwide: While African-Americans, Hispanics, and Asian-Americans make up 13.2 percent, 17.1 percent, and 5.3 percent of the United States, respectively, they only make up 8.1 percent, 6.8 percent, and 2.4 percent of Congress. But Seth Masket, a political scientist at the University of Denver, presents compelling evidence that Ferguson is an outlier even by those standards.

Using a 2001 data set, Masket plotted the percentage of the population that was African-American in cities with at least 10,000 residents against the percentage of their city councils that was. There is a strong relationship between the two, as one would expect. African-Americans are underrepresented in general — the trend line would predict that a 50 percent black city would have a 43 percent black city council — but Ferguson is a huge outlier:

Masket/Trounstine on black city council reps

(Jessica Trounstine and Melody Valdini / International City/County Management Association)

Now, the demographics of both Ferguson and its city council have changed since this data was collected. In 2000, as former Missouri State Senator Jeff Smith notes in a New York Times op-ed today, Ferguson was only 52 percent black (as you can see on the chart), whereas today it's 67 percent black, and between 2001 and today it's gained a black city councilor.

But black residents are still wildly underrepresented, and Masket finds that observable factors like having off-cycle, nonpartisan elections or being (arguably) in the South can't entirely explain the representation gap. He concludes: "There are national problems, but even given that, Ferguson’s illnesses appear to be unusually acute."

Be sure to read the whole analysis, as well as Slate's Jordan Weissman on the role of turnout in black underrepresentation and political scientists Brian Schaffner, Wouter Van Erve and Ray LaRaja on why holding elections in odd-numbered years and making them nonpartisan have made Ferguson's turnout gap worse. Masket's analysis suggests these factors don't entirely explain why Ferguson's city council is so much less representative than other cities', but they likely matter on the margins. Also read Vox's Matt Yglesias on why the current protests might mean the end of the city's white political domination.