How will City Hall serve a less segregated Kansas City?

06/26/2013 6:21 PM

06/26/2013 6:21 PM

A diverse panel of Kansas Citians, selected by the city’s second black mayor, is getting ready to have some racially charged discussions.

The Charter Review Commission appointed by Mayor Sly James is meeting this summer to discuss potential changes to how City Council members are selected.

One plan floating around to help get more minorities on the council would require nine members elected from districts and only three at-large, along with the mayor. Currently, voters select a mayor, six members from districts, and six at-large.

There will be plenty of time in coming months to evaluate the best ways to enhance minority representation at City Hall.

But keep a few underappreciated facts in mind as the debates begin.

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Kansas City is getting less segregated, and doing it far more quickly than most cities in America.

According to 2010 census data, the Kansas City metropolitan area was the 23rd most segregated in the nation regarding black and white populations among 50 regions with the largest number of black residents.

That was a significant upgrade from the ranking of 16th most segregated in 1990 and 14th most segregated in 2000.

Still, the 2010 figure remains too high, making us worse off than regions such as Atlanta, Dallas and Minneapolis.

Then again, the Kansas City area between 2000 and 2010 rapidly became less segregated than Los Angeles, Baltimore, Washington, D.C., Pittsburgh, Memphis, Houston and several others.

Kansas City also is much better on this issue than other Midwestern cities including Milwaukee (second worst in the nation), Chicago, Cleveland and St. Louis (ninth worst).

Overall, Kansas City’s 2010 segregation rate was under the national average for the first time in at least 40 years.

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The black population in Kansas City has been declining, not rising.

The city had 137,540 black residents in 2010, down slightly from 137,879 in 2000. Meanwhile, the number of white residents went up by almost 4,400.

The percentage of black residents fell to 29.9 percent in 2010, from 31.2 percent in 2000, partly because the city gained more than 18,000 people in the decade.

Bottom line: Kansas City has stabilized in its white/black split.

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The percentage of people of Hispanic origin jumped from 6.9 percent in 2000 to 10 percent in 2010.

Hispanics, who seldom have had much direct representation on the council, are looking for ways to change that disparity.

However, those efforts will be made more difficult by the fact that Hispanic residents are spread out around the city. Their political bases are more diffuse.

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Kansas City has done pretty well for itself in electing black politicians.

In 1982, Alan Wheat was elected to represent much of Kansas City in Congress. He was one of the first blacks to represent a white-majority district.

In 1991, Emanuel Cleaver became one of the first black mayors to represent a large, white-majority city. He easily won re-election in 1995, and now represents a white-majority congressional district.

And in 2011, James stormed to a deserved victory and has had an active and mostly successful first two years in office.

Meanwhile, the percentage of black elected city officials has come close to or even exceeded that of the city’s black population. For example, Kansas City’s four black elected officials make up 31 percent of the council in a city with 29.9 percent black population.

Logical and legal ways probably exist to help more minorities get elected to the City Council. We will see if the Charter Review Commission can find them.

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