Locally, black Rochesterians face more alarming statistics than most black communities in the nation. Here, we graduate fewer students, our children are more likely to be impoverished, and violence continues to leave our neighborhoods downtrodden.
“In Rochester, it’s hard to believe that the situations we see can even be fixed by laws,” said Sherrod Wells, a local activist who’s studying political science at George Washington University. “Like, we’re so bad off, so many of us think that politics isn’t even the answer anymore. But it is and when wielded correctly, I think it’s the only way to fix our issues. Jobs are a good idea, but locally we have a confluence of issues that need legislative intervention. Jobs won’t get us into Webster.”
Historically, emigrating communities, even those disempowered in America, were able to economically build themselves up and then begin to look toward political representation. However, because of a number of policies and American structures, blacks have not had the same financial opportunities, but instead have better political representation due to a number of protests and movements to gain political power. For instance, for the most part, blacks are better represented statistically than Latinx and Asian Americans. Not only do we have a black president, locally, our mayor is black and a number of legislators are as well.
So, if the plight of a community is supposed to decrease with more political representation, than why are local rates of poverty, homelessness and violence staying consistent? Simply because political representation demands more than politicians who look like their voters.
Rochester is balanced by competing interests
According to data from the Monroe County Board of Elections, black Rochesterians are pretty accurately represented by the numbers. Of the 10 representatives who represent Rochester (partial representation included), five are black. Of the five white representatives, just two have districts that are totally in Rochester. Rep. Mark S. Muirio represents the 21st district, which includes the Beechwood neighborhood, a swiftly gentrifying area and Rep. Cynthia Kaleh who represents parts of Lyell.
However, for the most part, representatives of the inner city are black. The other five representatives are from districts mostly in the inner city. This includes Rep. Vincent Felder in Upper Falls (22nd District) and Rep. Ernest Flagler Mitchell whose 29th District includes the northeast.
However, the County Legislature is balanced by representatives of local suburbs and some close rural areas, meaning the interests of city residents are often balanced by outside interests. And currently, Republicans also are in power, meaning that the more progressive officials from the City of Rochester are outnumbered and their policies are ignored.
“Honestly we’re outnumbered. I think it’s 19-10,” said Rep. James Sheppard. “As a result of that, it’s an uphill battle relative to anything the democrats want to pass. At the same time it’s very powerful when you listen to this voice, from an African American experience. It brings something in the room that normally people wouldn’t hear.”
He added that for this very reason, electing black politicians is important though it’s not the end-all be-all. In addition to party politics, Shepard added that often personal politics comes into play and legislators will refuse to support legislation simply because of who sponsored it.
There are also racial structures in place in the county legislature. It’s not as simple as “I’m a racist legislator form Parma who wants to stop you.” Instead because of structures in place, the issues supported by black officials and residents are likely to be social services, minimum wage and other housing and employment strategies. However, in the rest of the county, where the average income is higher even than New York State’s average, these interests don’t match because in surrounding areas they have no use for these enlarging these structures and actively work against being made to support them.
False Voices/ False Power
There is also the issue of false political power.
Black Americans only recently gained the right to vote. With that came a slow trickle of black representatives. These politicians were able to advocate for voting laws and a number of policies targeting social services and education at the federal level to try and uplift black Americans. Politicians like Rep. Shirley Chisholm are renowned for their influence on American politics; however, a closer look shows a constant struggle with their white counterparts to pass legislation and gain powerful seats. Chisholm, upon election, was actually placed into a committee focusing on agriculture, despite her representing a portion of New York City. However, though it was a clear attempt to limit her political power, she was able to use her seat to expand food and hunger programs.
“Historically, our representatives existed just so that black Americans couldn’t complain,” said Patricia Lewis, a local activist. “It was a way to have someone at the table without really having someone at the table. Our representatives had to fight harder than most just to pass smaller laws. And these laws were watered down and had so little effect. So then they seem like they’re not doing anything. It’s a vicious pattern and some may not be re-elected.”
And currently at the federal level, power still remains scarily low. Similar to issues with competing interests, often policy sponsored and supported by blacks is less likely to be passed. In fact, according to Nicholas Stephanopoulos at The Atlantic, “as support for a policy rises within the black community, the odds of it being achieved actually decline.” According to his article, unless there is white support for a federal policy, it only has a 10 percent chance of being enacted. However, if federal policy is universally supported by whites, the chances of it being made into law shoot up to 60 percent. Yet a law with no black support still has 40 percent chance at being passed.
Locally, these statistics are much harder to measure; however, Sheppard mentioning how difficult it can be pass legislation is anecdotal evidence of this struggle.
“There’s a lot of politics and this is just Monroe County,” said a former employee for the County Legislature in an email exchange. She asked to remain anonymous because of her continued local political work. “I think it can serve as a microcosm because that tension between the city (where our black voters live) and the suburbs is on display. So often, legislation that would be a boom to the city isn’t passed just because it comes at the expense of suburban voters who have better political representation.”
And we’re only hurting ourselves when blacks don’t vote or get involved, she said.
“The truth is, yeah there’s lot more of those representatives and yeah it’s politically unpopular to raise taxes and ‘take away’ guns but the truth is these voters get involved,” she added. “They call their representatives, go to meetings and outreach events and they get heard.”
We don’t vote for what we want
Voter turnout remains dismal among black voters, particularly at the local level. At face value, this shouldn’t matter for black representation. Assumedly, the black representative would be able to still represent those concerns. Not true, said Lewis, and thinking so assumes the black community has a monolithic, political voice.
“My approach to solving a problem might not be the same as someone else’s even if we are the same skin tone, gender or whatever,” she said. “When you vote it’s not just about your community, it’s about your own interests. And I don’t mean in terms of abortion or whatever but how you want to go about actually fixing things.”
Put simply, two black people may agree the violence in our city needs to decrease but they most likely won’t agree on how this should be done. Do you prefer a legislator who creates more jobs for our youth or one who focuses on education? Maybe you’d like someone tougher on crime.
So, why is this important? Because while this legislator can represent the overall concerns of his district (reducing crime) he’s unable bring smaller voices to the table about how they actually want this done— ultimately ending his ability to represent us. Sheppard pointed out this often results in black constituents who feel unrepresented and that the politician doesn’t care about them, resulting in further disenchantment and disengagement. And it’s not just at the county level; getting politicians who can represent the diverse concerns at the neighborhood level is critical for City Council.
“People often say a politician has to work for my vote,” said Lewis, laughing. “And that’s true and all but if you don’t get involved they don’t even know what to work for. If you don’t vote, you have no voice. So, a good representative makes sure they’re representing their people but its up to the voter to get their individual voice heard. That’s not on one person to hear every single voice in their area. That’s just impossible.”
“I think the potential is there,” said Wells. He said he’s not active in any local campaigns but has been encouraging friends to vote and plans to vote for his dorm room. “However, I think the first step is to pass laws that create better housing, make our schools better. I know for sure that while our black representatives don’t seem to making a huge difference, keeping those seats ours is imperative to making sure we don’t go back. It’s not to say white representatives have some evil agenda but by and large they don’t have the same experiences as us. It won’t fix everything but by actually using our voice we can demand better politicians. We can push back on white voices, voices backed with money and get our issues on the board.”