Lack of young adults in public office leaves void in black community
Complaints erupt when I speak to fellow African-Americans about our local community.
Elders say youth could care less about the millions of marches, arrests, bruises and deaths incurred to hold freedom’s hand.
Teens and twenty- and thirty-somethings complain about the lack of “things to do here.”
Tucson transplants tend to say the community lacks identity. Of course, many of them came from cities where blackness is ingrained in day-to-day functions and the very bricks that make up their civic centers.
But age and origin aside, most eventually ask: “Where is Tucson’s African-American community?”
I ask this same question but wonder in terms of numbers and political power.
Dozens of pioneers and activists have built the clout required to produce positive and progressive change.
But what of political power?
African-Americans have virtually no firsthand political sting in Arizona. If you don’t believe me, read the stats.
Two African-Americans are state policymakers – thank heavens – but that’s only 2 percent of the showing.
No corporation commissioner, state mine inspector, superintendent of public instruction or Arizona Supreme Court justice is black.
At the local level, no African-Americans serve in city or Pima County elected positions, though African-Americans do serve on city councils and as mayor elsewhere in Arizona.
Why do I care about the lack of public servants who look like me and the other 26,000 or so African-Americans in Pima County – 181,000 in the state?
First, because I live here.
Also, elected officials have the immediate influence to create the change we want to see in education, access, economics, quality of life, growth and much-needed solidarity.
And I want people to stop waiting for the next great hero who will single-handedly herald the influence reminiscent of Martin Luther King Jr.
People, it’s time to move on – but never forget – and create our own change. Some are already doing that.
In recent decades, a number of African-American women and men have run for Arizona office.
First black female legislator Ethel Maynard, former legislator Cloves Campbell Sr., former Phoenix Councilman Calvin Goode, former state Rep. Herschella Horton, Phoenix Councilman Michael Johnson, Eloy Mayor Byron K. Jackson, Esther Sharif and Betty Liggins are just a few.
But these great individuals are mostly of my grandparents’ generation and before.
Where are the likes of state Rep. Cloves C. Campbell Jr. and Sen. Leah Landrum Taylor? They are the only two African-Americans in state office today.
“There are a number of things that simply won’t be talked about if we are not in the room,” said 26-year former state Rep. Art Hamilton.
But while fewer African-Americans live in Pima County than the number of students attending the University of Arizona, that’s no justification.
Hamilton was driven to serve because “once you saw the price of blood, pain and toil required to open the door, somebody damn well better walk through it to make a difference.”
But it’s about more than just being there.
I share the opinion of Clarence Boykins, who ran for legislative office last year.
“Just to have an African-American there means absolutely nothing if they’re not willing to speak up and address issues,” said Boykins, executive director of the Tucson-Southern Arizona Black Chamber of Commerce.
Campbell Jr. said other reasons for the lack of representation include finances and the missing link between younger and older generations.
“You find people who are trying so hard to assimilate,” he said. “They’re not looking at more of the important issues and lose sight of what’s important to the African-American community.
“Sure, you want to be included, but you don’t want to lose your culture and your history. . . . ”
Some blame the lack of black politicians on the Hispanic population’s concentration, recent exponential growth and drive to seek elected positions.
But that’s a poor excuse for not engaging in service.
Granted, numerous individuals have shown up eager and hopeful, only to be rejected at the ballot box.
And this nation – Arizona included – has actively sought to cripple the African-American community, devour its customs and stifle its voice.
“African-Americans have a whole set of different problems, and we’re judged by a whole different set of standards,” said former Tucson Vice Mayor and Councilman Chuck Ford, the only African-American to hold city office here.
To run for office is to “bare your soul,” said Ford, a councilman from 1979 to 1987. “There are folks out there who may not be willing for you to be elected, but it’s best to have tried and failed than to have not tried at all.”
Back then, the lack of African-American officials didn’t concern Ford much. But it does now, and more troubling is that few young adults are running.
The campaign and subsequent responsibility are hard, however, Ford added, “particularly when there are not many folks who have been there before you and when you’re not being encouraged.”
To those who have considered or are considering public office: Don’t be discouraged.
I, and so many others, believe in you. Yes, we come from a history of great degradation and pressure to move back, sit down and shut up.
But it’s time. Stand up.
La Monica Everett-Haynes covers higher education for the Tucson Citizen. E-mail: lmhaynes @tucsoncitizen.com