With Friends Like These…

As candidates begin to file to run for election and re-election to the St. Louis Board of Aldermen, African-Americans, who are the largest racial group in the city, have another opportunity to finally claim a proportional number of seats on the city’s governing body. But one group, more than any other, stands in the way: white allies.

Every 10 years, the boundaries of the city’s 28 wards are redrawn. Using the latest data from the U.S. Census, in accordance with federal law, steps are taken to ensure that minority groups are—theoretically—able to win a number of seats equal to their proportion of the city’s population. According to the 2010 census, 157,160 (49%) black people lived in the city and 140,267 (44%) white people. So in 2011, when the present ward boundaries were drawn, half of the wards (14) were drawn with majority-black populations to make it possible for black candidates to win. But despite that, today only 11 of the 28 wards are represented by black aldermen. What happened?

Well, when it came time to file to run for alderman in three of those majority-black wards, white progressives felt they were the best choice to lead those districts. And a majority, or at least a plurality, of voters in those wards decided they were right.

Wards 6, 20 and 25 are majority-black wards that are presently represented by aldermen Christine Ingrassia, Cara Spencer, and Shane Cohn, respectively. Each of them have been called liberal, progressive members of the board. But each of them on occasion have joined with the white majority to vote down bills and amendments that were supported by the black members.

All three of these aldermen would call themselves friends of the black community. But as the old saying goes, “With friends like these, who needs enemies?”

Let black people lead. That is truly the progressive approach to governance in St. Louis. One that I wish more white progressives adopted.

Another white progressive alderman is now seeking to take another black office. 15th Ward Alderwoman Megan Green this week filed to run against Board President Lewis Reed, the first and only African-American ever elected to that office. 

Since Reed’s election in 2007, he has been the only reason black aldermen have had any significant voice at the Board of Aldermen. Representing only 11 of 28 wards, it is possible for a bill to become law in the City of St. Louis without one black vote. White aldermen could push through any legislation, no matter how harmful to black communities, easily having in excess of the necessary 15 votes and the support of the mayor. 

It is only because Reed, using his power to appoint members of committees, has made sure each committee is racially balanced, and in some cases majority-black, that blacks have an opportunity to weigh in and shape every bill at the board, and in some cases, stop bills dead in their tracks.

It’s not clear Green has any appreciation for what having an African-American in that position means. Having just moved to St. Louis in 2005, she certainly has little appreciation for what Reed’s historic election meant in 2007. 

Let me be clear — all the above-mentioned aldermen are good and honorable people who work hard for their constituents and their beliefs. But if we, as progressives and as St. Louisans, at all value the need for black people to have proportional representation in government, we have to recognize that the largest obstacle to that happening is our friends and allies who keep taking the seats specifically drawn for blacks.

White allies, let black folks lead. And if black people challenge other black people in elections, as is healthy and required in our democracy, don’t exploit that to steal our seats. Or, at least, don’t call yourself our friend if you do.

Antonio French

Author: Antonio French

Antonio French is the publisher of The NorthSider. Born and raised in north St. Louis, he is a social entrepreneur and former two-term St. Louis City alderman. He lives in the O'Fallon Park neighborhood with his wife, son, and four rescue dogs. Follow him on Twitter at @antoniofrench. Email him at antonio.french@thenorthsider.com

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