Unlikely Presence

In the Nation's Legislative Committee Chambers, Black Chairpersons Are in Short Supply

In his now famous "audacity of hope" speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, Barack Obama couldn't help but state the obvious: "Tonight is a particular honor for me because, let's face it, my presence on this stage is pretty unlikely. My father was a foreign student, born and raised in a small village in Kenya. He grew up herding goats, went to school in a tin-roof shack."

Today, of course, Obama is a popular United States Senator and a high-profile presidential candidate, a man whose personal and professional achievements have earned him the respect and admiration of millions. Some have suggested that Obama's success might even usher in a new era for African American politicians, one in which, to paraphrase Martin Luther King Jr., voters of all races might focus less on the color of a candidate's skin and more on the content of his or her character.

Sadly, such a view may be overstating our progress. A new study suggests, in fact, that American politics at the regional level remains far from color blind, at least when it comes to leadership positions in the nation's statehouses. In a paper published in the September edition of Social Science Quarterly, MU's Marvin Overby, a professor of political science, Associate Professor Byron D'Andra Orey of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and Assistant Professor Christopher W. Larimer at the University of Northern Iowa reviewed data on the racial composition of state legislative bodies and their important committee chairmanships. They found that during the decade ending in 1999 African Americans remained significantly underrepresented as chairs, despite a 31 percent overall increase in seats held by black officials.

"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," Overby says. "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 translate winning elections into holding positions of actual political power within state political institutions."