News+Opinion » Barney Blakeney

Black councilmembers have done little to help the black community

Low-Impact Representation



In a couple of weeks the madness will be over. Charleston voters will have cast their ballots. And I'm thinking not a whole lot will have changed. At least not as far as minority representation is concerned.

Three of council's five black members are up for reelection, and I'm betting they will each be sent back to council. That would be a good thing if it meant black constituents in their respective districts would somehow benefit.

For the past 32 years, blacks in Charleston have had significant representation on City Council. Until four years ago, half of its 12 members were black. But that's never translated into significant advantages for the black community.

It's amazing that significant political representation never seems to benefit black people. Despite having five black representatives on council, the per capita income of blacks in the city remains at roughly about half that of whites while black students are about twice as likely to drop out before graduating than their white classmates. That's been true since Charleston adopted single member district representation in 1975.

Even in areas where black representation on City Council can have a direct impact on social or economic policy, it has failed to make its weight felt.

Last month, council's black members uncharacteristically voted unanimously to hold up the restoration of the Dock Street Theatre until more guarantees were in place to give black contractors an equitable share of the contracts. Their effort was unsuccessful.

Most observers contribute black council members' rare unity to election-year politics. I'm inclined to agree since that unity has been conspicuously absent as multi-million dollar development projects have sprung up all over the city in recent years.

About 20 years ago council approved goals for minority business participation in construction and the procurement of goods and services. The goals were made for two categories: women-owned businesses and black-owned businesses. The city consistently meets its goals for women-owned businesses (usually white women), but it doesn't meet its goals for minority business participation.

The benefits of black representation on City Council have been equally as dismal on social issues. Violent crime and illegal drug trafficking continue to ravage black communities, but few initiatives to reduce crime in the black community have come from black councilmembers.

Municipal government has been virtually absent when it comes to the city's predominantly black public schools or recreational opportunities for black kids. While the city has a number of partnerships with public schools in its domain, they all seem to be paper tigers, especially if you consider that all the city's predominantly black schools are failing schools.

I once asked a black councilman what the city could do to improve the delivery of quality education to black students. The guy told me education was the school board's responsibility.

A partnership with downtown's Burke High School that shared Herbert Hassel Pool, Jack Adams Tennis Center, and Harmon Field Park would have combined with partnerships with the Citadel and the Medical University of South Carolina to create a state-of-the-art educational facility, but that bird never flew. Three of council's black representatives have constituents attending Burke High.

Councilmen can play a greater role in providing recreation for idle young minds, but if a kid doesn't play basketball or football, the options at city playgrounds are limited. For some reason recreation hasn't been a priority for council's black representatives.

Yeah, I'll be glad to see the races for City Council end next month. I just wish the pathetic apathy of council's black representation would end with it.

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