When Milton Scales ran for a trustee position in Meridian Township, he knew he needed to do the impossible to get elected.
No other African-American had been elected to a township office.
“The odds were stacked against me,” said Scales, a Detroit native who has called Meridian Township home for more than nine years.
Scales won that race and became a trustee for the township. But he wanted more. By the end of his first four-year term, there was a vacancy for township supervisor. Scales decided to run. He said he was “beaten severely” in the Democratic primary.
Scales doesn’t know if race played a role in his loss, but research shows minority candidates for public office often face cultural and social challenges that their white counterparts don’t.
Latinos as catalysts of change
When President Barack Obama won the election in 2008, many Americans were excited and hopeful that his presidency would bring a change in American politics. He was the nation’s first black president.
But Latinos, the group of voters who many said were the decisive vote in the 2008 election, were less happy as the days passed after the 2008 election. They hoped for more representation in Obama’s cabinet.
In 2008, then-New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who is Latino, was rumored as a candidate for secretary of state, a job that ultimately went to Hillary Clinton. The Latino community noticed.
“Every election is showing that there is a gradual increase in the number of elected Latinos,” said Rubén Martínez, director of the Julian Samora Research Institute at Michigan State University, which specializes in Latino issues in the Midwest.
This can also translate to the number of Latinos and other minorities appointed by presidents and governors.
President Obama has appointed more Latinos than any other president, including Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro and Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez.
‘Not good enough’
In Meridian Township, Scales knew that race would play an important role in his election.
According to the 2010 Census, 84 percent of Meridian Township’s population is white — 10 percent is Asian, 7 percent is African-American, 2 percent Latino and 1 percent is American Indian or Alaskan Native.
“I would not say if a black person is defeated in an election it’s because of racism. I would not use that as an excuse,” Scales said. “I would say that there are some decisions that are based in your ethnicity. There are some people that have some biases.”
But for Scales, becoming the supervisor of the township meant something bigger than just a position. It meant progress.
“Next year Meridian Township is turning 175 years old, I thought what better demonstration of change in a community, to have someone whose ancestors 175 years ago were slaves,” Scales said. “To serve as the chair of their board in 2017 on their 175 birthday, that would have spoken volumes, not to mention that I have excellent perquisites, excellent credentials — but just not good enough.”
Not good enough — it’s a phrase that sometimes cuts deep in underrepresented communities.
“A Latino, a black person trying to climb the ladder or just trying to get higher they have to have super credentials, whereas any Dick and Dan can walk in the door at (any) place, get hired and get promoted,” Scales said. “But people of color have to be impeccable.
“That’s nice that we want to make sure that the people you hire are impeccable but all of them have to be impeccable.”
Higher standards, fewer opportunities
Purdue University Nadia Brown’s research shows African-American women need to have more education and credentials to become elected.
Brown, an associate professor of political science and African-American studies at the Indiana university, said there are many factors that contribute to the lack of representation of black women in office, and media bias is one of them.
“Media kind of sees these women as only good at representing these issues that only affect a very small population, particularly women of color and that they don’t translate well into larger issues such as the economy, immigration or health care,” Brown said. “(Research) shows that voters think that black women are tough, strong — but they are not likeable characters.”
Only one African-American woman has been elected to the U.S. Senate, out of nine black senators.
“African-Americans are about 13 percent of the United States, but they make up less than 5 percent of the segment of the Senate and the House and state legislatures,” Brown said.
And like Latinos, who decided the elections for Obama in 2008, four years later, black women were key in giving a back-to-back victory for the first black president in the history of the country.
“Without black women, Obama would not have won the White House in 2012,” a report published in September by the AFL-CIO argues. “Black women voters delivered the key battleground states of Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida for Obama, where he picked up 67 additional electoral votes.”
The report concludes that “without those states Obama would have been five electoral votes shy of winning the presidency, and the black community would have lost the progressive policies ushered in by his leadership.”
In the presidential elections of 2012, 83 percent of registered black women voted, whereas 73 percent of “all other women” went out and casted a vote, the AFL-CIO reports says.
However, when in non-presidential elections years, like 2014, only 55 percent of registered black women turned out, compared to 53 percent of “all other women.” These elections, every two years, are the ones that matter when choosing many local and state leaders.