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The Unsteady Rise of Minority Civil Servants

The Unsteady Rise of Minority Civil Servants
Library of Congress

Photographs from the riots that spread across American cities in the 1960s capture a telling detail about the era. The incensed communities, as history well remembers, were black. And, invariably, the police officers were white.

The Kerner Commission appointed by Lyndon Johnson to study the causes of these "civil disorders" later cited this disconnect as one piece of the underlying problem. Blacks, twice as likely at the time to be unemployed as whites, had been systematically shut out from good public-sector jobs. And their exclusion from the most visible civil servant ranks of all on urban police forces – made the tension between the powerful and the powerless in cities like Chicago and Detroit all the worse.

Two generations later, historic census data suggest that major metropolitan police forces now reflect the black populations embedded in the communities they serve. But across the entire spectrum of municipal jobs – including janitors, secretaries, lawyers, school teachers, fire fighters and detectives – the story is decidedly more mixed.

Todd Gardner, a survey statistician with the Census Bureau's Center for Economic Studies, has built with the Urban Institute a fascinating database dating back to 1960 that compares who held (and still holds) local government jobs with the racial makeup of the general population in America's 100 largest metros. The tool is built on census data that's not publicly available.

Gardner's results show that the once-yawning employment gap in high-wage municipal jobs has narrowed since 1960 in most places. But minorities are still vastly overrepresented in low-wage public-sector jobs, in positions like janitor and secretary. And in some Midwestern cities in particular, minorities have actually been losing ground in the high-skill jobs, with their representation falling back to levels reminiscent of the 1960s.

Across these 100 metros, the story since then has been one of changing demographics, changing politics, and changing law.

"The civil rights legislation of the '60s was really a watershed," Gardner says. "You can really see the effect of the Jim Crow laws in the South because those barriers to employment were measurable in the 1960s, in the South especially."

This graph shows the racial makeup of municipal jobs in the city of Atlanta since then:


Atlanta proper.

Gardner has divided the low- and high-earning municipal jobs by those above and below the median wage for all occupations in the city (including government and non-government jobs). The graph captures proportionality, not absolute numbers. And so groups above 1 are overrepresented in the municipal ranks relative to their share of the working-age city population. Groups below 1 are underrepresented.

As that picture shows, non-whites were barely present among the high-wage city jobs in Atlanta in 1960. Today, however, blacks in particular are overrepresented (where sample sizes were small and privacy a potential concern, Gardner grouped all non-whites into a single category in some years).

Nashville shows a comparable story in 1960, with immediate and dramatic gains in the next decade, but declines among minorities in the high-earning jobs more recently:


Nashville proper.

These graphs tell a very simple statistical story. They capture whether the local public-sector work force faithfully reflects the general population available to work, not whether it mirrors the racial makeup of the qualified applicant pool for particular positions. This means, in 2013, that minorities in high-earning jobs may still be underrepresented in some cities not because of overt discrimination, but because of underlying inequalities in access to education and training that poorly position minorities for these good jobs.

Fifty years ago, the obstacles were more conspicuous. Civil service commissions administered cognitive tests that had little to do with the skills required for particular work. Jobs that weren't widely posted went to applicants who already had connections to public officials or police officers (or patronage networks). Fire departments gave technical tests that required candidates to properly demonstrate how to handle fire-fighting equipment. And then, of course, only those people who had friends at a local station had the chance to practice.

All of these tactics had the effect of weeding out minorities (a separate class of sly standards for height and weight had a similar effect of keeping women off police and fire forces). I asked Richard Ugelow*, who teaches law at American University, which cities were particularly notorious offenders in that era of the 1960s.

"You could throw a dart at any major city in the U.S. and come to that conclusion," Ugelow says. He worked for 29 years scrutinizing cities for such practices in the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice. "But I’ll tell you the cities that we sued: Buffalo, New York, Miami, Los Angeles, San Francisco. Chicago is really a good example. These suits were fought bitterly at the beginning because you had police unions that were entrenched, that wanted to protect their jobs for their relatives."

The DOJ went after police and fire departments in particular because, Ugelow says, they were the largest employers offering the biggest impact for the DOJ's limited legal resources. And, Ugelow says, those were the jobs that gave minorities the greatest visibility in the community.

Southern cities certainly weren't unique. Here, in order, are Buffalo, Boston and Philadelphia:


Buffalo (left), Boston (center), Philadelphia (right)

All three cities have had stagnating progress since the 1990s, or even a loss of it. Even more interesting is the case of Detroit, a city whose demographics have dramatically shifted over the last 50 years from a majority-white city to a majority-black one. The below two graphs show the racial makeup of public-sector jobs in the Detroit metropolitan area (at left) and the city of Detroit (at right), on two different scales:

 
Detroit metro area (left) and center city (right).

This suggests that as whites have become a dwindling minority inside the city, their disproportionate share of good government jobs has actually skyrocketed. As of 2008, non-Hispanic whites made up 8.8 percent of the city's population, but 34.9 percent of its government jobs paying better than the median income. Those two data points feed the dangerous image of Detroit as a poor black city where important municipal decisions are often made by unelected whites.

All of these proportions are moving targets. And this is particularly true in Western metros where Hispanics are moving into cities like Los Angeles much faster than they're moving into government jobs. But the fact that this gap has lingered in many cities – and even widened lately in some – suggests that we're still far from the ideal that civil servants should represent (and understand) the city they serve.

You can look up all of the other metropolitan areas here, courtesy of the Urban Institute:

Correction: This story initially misspelled Richard Ugelow's name.

Top image of women taking the qualifying exam for the New York Police Department in 1947: Library of Congress

Emily Badger is a former staff writer at The Atlantic Cities based in Washington, D.C. She now writes for The Washington Post. All posts »

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