Women of Color Have Increased Representation in City-Wide Elected Offices by Almost Fifty Percent

Supermajority Education Fund

October 2, 2020

A new report from the Reflective Democracy Campaign found that the number of women of color in citywide elected offices in the nation’s 100 largest cities — in both red and blue states — has increased by 46% since the 2016 election. People of color of all genders also increased the percentage of elected offices they held in 58 cities during this time.

“For power to shift this significantly in a relatively short period of time is pretty encouraging,” Brenda Choresi Carter, director of the Reflective Democracy Campaign, told Supermajority News. “For this to be happening in just a span of four years is really noteworthy.”

This shift in leadership was particularly noticeable in terms of mayoral leadership; while in 2016 there were 39 cities with women or people of color as mayor, that number had risen to 54. “When voters have the opportunity to vote for leaders who represent their communities, they will,” Carter said.

But Carter stresses that these shifts in power are the result of concerted local recruitment and advocacy efforts to get more women and people of color in the political system to ensure that city leaders reflect their residents. “Sometimes there is a belief that as the population becomes more diverse, so will political leadership,” noted Carter. “But there is nothing automatic about it. These are systems that are built to exclude women and people of color, so they have to be forced to open up.”

This changing face of leadership is significant in a year in which cities have become the forefront of both the COVID-19 pandemic and protests surrounding policing. Take the Minneapolis City Council, for example, which recently voted to replace its police department with a Department of Community Safety and Violence Prevention — and which also saw five new members elected in 2017, three of whom were African Americans who beat longtime incumbents.

“It is important in any context that elected leaders reflect the populations they serve,” said Carter. “When we are talking about the criminal legal system that is, let’s say, structurally racist, it is incredibly important that people of color have their fair share of representations in decisions about that legal system.”

Despite these impressive gains, however, leadership in many of 100 of America’s largest cities — including in Los Angeles, Houston, and New York City — continues to be primarily white and male, even as urban areas continue to become more diverse. While white men make up only 19% of the population in America’s 100 largest cities, they hold 36% of city elected offices, according to the report. While that number is down from 42% in 2016, it still signifies an overrepresentation of white men in urban America’s public sphere.

Nevertheless, Carter is hopeful that if this recent pattern of electing women of color to these positions continues, “we will continue to see different policy decisions and different priorities and perspectives that have been brought to bear on people who live in cities,” she said.