African Americans achieved a political breakthrough following the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Between 1971 and 2009, their numbers in state legislatures rose steadily from 2% to 9% nationwide. Such breadth of representation hadn’t been seen since Reconstruction, when more than 600 Black lawmakers were elected to state legislatures across the South.
Today, there are a total of 752 Black legislators, or a little more than 10% of the total nationwide, according to the National Black Caucus of State Legislators. Of them, 430 are male and 322 are female. The members’ average age is 55.
Maryland has the largest African American presence, at 29%, and Black lawmakers make up at least a quarter of the legislatures in Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina. The NBCSL also counts members in the U.S. Virgin Islands and on the D.C. Council.
Still numbers tell only part of any story. As Black History Month draws to a close, we offer perspectives from two recent past presidents of National Black Caucus of State Legislators.
Representative Gilda Cobb-Hunter (D) began serving in the South Carolina House in 1992. A social worker by training, she has held a variety of leadership positions, including on her state’s Board of Social Work Examiners, as House minority leader from 1997 to 2000, as a national committeewoman for the Democratic National Committee and as NBCSL president from 2018 to 2020.
Indiana Representative Greg Porter (D) is serving his 14th term for the 96th House District in Indianapolis, his hometown. He is the ranking minority member of the Indiana House Ways and Means Committee and is senior vice-president of external affairs for the Health and Hospital Corporation of Marion County. He served as NBCSL president from 2017 to 2019.
NCSL: What has been the effect of the coronavirus on the communities of color you represent, and what do you see as your role in helping those in your community affected by COVID-19?
Cobb-Hunter: The COVID-19 pandemic has negatively impacted communities of color and has unfortunately highlighted the many inequities and disparities these communities face. These inequities and disparities range from lack of access to health care and broadband to economic and educational disparities. I have focused my attention on making sure that testing and tracing is offered in sufficient numbers and now that the vaccine has been approved working to ensure that my constituents are able to get vaccinated. I have also spent a lot of time trying to expand broadband to unserved parts of my district.
Porter: The coronavirus has illuminated the health disparities and implicit bias which lie within these United States and Indiana. There has been a simultaneous need to increase advocacy efforts and recognize our own mortality. I have had to figure out not only how to expand ones influence in different government agencies to get information out, but also how to influence public policy around engagement of the Black community. There has been a need to advocate for our communities of color.
How has the call for social justice reform shaped your legislative priorities?
Cobb-Hunter: The call for social justice has renewed my interest in criminal justice reform. Specifically, after the George Floyd shooting, I created a work group to look at the issues involved in the shooting and what policy changes could be helpful to address the identified issues. The end product was legislation to develop a framework to codify expected behavior and ensure transparency and accountability. The Ethical Policing bill in whole or in part has been introduced in several states and portions of it were included in legislation passed last year in Virginia.
Porter: Due to the some of the largest multiracial protest for social justice, the Indiana Black Legislative Caucus (IBLC) created a robust justice reform agenda, which generated over 35 pieces of introduced legislation. I filed four for this current legislative session.
Are you finding more constituents are involved in the legislative process now?
Cobb-Hunter: I am sensing an increased interest in the legislative process from my constituents. The level of involvement is still however, not at all where I think it should be and I accept some responsibility for that.
Porter: Absolutely, there has been a significant increase in participation, a direct cause and effect of citizens seeking more engagement in the process. Over 350 individuals signed up for the IBLC advocacy team. Through increased social media, emails and phone call traffic, corporations want to follow the lead of advocacy organizations. They are opening their corporate minds, trying to understand the Black and multicultural community needs.
From your perspective, what should legislatures do to address diversity and a culture of inclusion internally and externally?
Cobb-Hunter: Legislatures should first and foremost practice what they preach. It’s not particularly convincing to have legislative leaders opine on diversity and inclusion when their staff and decision making process is neither diverse nor inclusive. Internally, legislative leaders who are serious about diversity and inclusion should make every effort to reflect both in their staff choices. Externally, the bully pulpit should be used to encourage decision makers to prioritize diversity and inclusion as a part of their work culture.
Porter: Legislators need cultural competency and implicit bias training. They need to make sure this training is occurring in the public agencies that have the most contact with people. The unconscious brain is 30,000 times more powerful than the conscious brain. Someone who is telling you they don’t have bias is not being truthful with themselves. We all have biases; we need to learn how to manage them, and that includes within the legislative process as well as for the agencies, staff and departments we hold accountable on behalf of voters.
With this being Black History Month, what message do you have for your state legislative colleagues across the country?
Cobb-Hunter: Black history is American history and should be recognized as such. The American fabric is stitched with the blood, sweat and tears of many Black people who have gone before. Learn to appreciate the role that Black people have played in the development of this country and get acquainted with implicit and explicit bias and the role it plays in shaping our thinking on a myriad of issues, including race.
Porter: While Black History Month may highlight the issues, I am reminded there have been trailblazers fighting for our freedom and a more inclusive America. We have to stand tall on our wall of equity and inclusion. We have no permanent friends and no permanent enemies, only permanent interest. We have to continue to fight for democracy and our communities’ interests.
These interviews, which were conducted by email, have been edited for length and clarity.