When Martin Luther King Jr. led the March on Washington in 1963, blacks were dramatically underrepresented in high-wage local government employment—good jobs in the police and firefighting forces, in public schools, in elected office.
This inequality undoubtedly compromised these governments’ ability to represent and serve their black constituents. It also held blacks back from an important avenue of social, economic, and political advancement from which their white counterparts benefited.
Fifty years later, our cities have become dramatically more diverse. Has black and other minority representation in local government jobs caught and kept up?
To answer this question, our Census Bureau partner Todd Gardner harmonized restricted-use data from 1960 through 2006-2010, categorizing government employment into low- and high-wage jobs. He broke the data down by race and by metro, central city, and region. The change over 50 years is fascinating.
The graphic above shows the share of each race group employed in local government, divided by the share of that race group in the working-age population. Values greater than one show overrepresentation; values less than one show underrepresentation.
Overall, in the nation’s large metro areas:
- High-wage minority representation increased dramatically between 1960 and 1970, the period encompassing the Civil Rights movement.
- Blacks gains in high-wage representation continued after 1970, but blacks are still overrepresented in low-wage jobs.
- Other minorities have been and still are underrepresented in high-wage employment.
- Whites remain overrepresented in high-wage employment.
As usual, there is critical and fascinating variation by region and metro. For example:
- In Columbus, Ohio, blacks and Hispanics have actually lost high-wage representation since 1980.
- They have also become less overrepresented in low-wage jobs.
- In Chicago, blacks were nearly proportionally represented in 1970 (the first year of Chicago data) and remain so today.
- Other racial groups in Chicago have also remained steady, though underrepresented.
- Atlanta exemplifies how stark differences in representation can be between metros and their central cities.
- In central Atlanta, all race groups except whites have become better represented since 1960.
- In the metro overall, blacks and Hispanics are less well-represented, and whites have climbed back to their 1960-level of overrepresentation.
- In Midwestern metros, minorities have actually become less well-represented since 1990, dropping close to 1960 levels.
- In other regions, all minorities made large gains between 1960 and 1970 and have held steady since then.
What does the story look like in your city? How does it enhance the narrative of social and economic equality brought to light so forcefully 50 years ago by MLK and other civil rights leaders? What role should local government play in actively advancing equality and prosperity?