Seventy-five community leaders, government and corporate representatives, and entrepreneurs let loose December 19, as they participating in a roast for retiring Michael Johnson, the 12-year Councilman for Phoenix District 8. Everyone had fun teasing Johnson about his tardiness for meetings or his favorite expressions during his term in office. But there remains an underlying concern among the attendees: Johnson’s departure represents more evidence of the fading influence of African-Americans in Phoenix.
There is no question that newly-elected Kate Gallego is well-qualified to represent the District. But her victory puts an end to the little, but long-term, representation (African-Americans have represented District 8, and only District 8, since Calvin Goode’s election in 1972) that African-Americans had in the nation’s sixth largest city. Many current residents do not realize that, under Jim Crow laws, African-Americans were segregated to living in areas comprising this District until the 1950’s.
While African-Americans only represent about 4-5% of the population in Phoenix, they have had an important influence in Arizona. From the Buffalo Soldiers to the mining communities before statehood, African-Americans have helped forge the history of the State. African-Americans had a relatively high education and income level, and served at high levels of several corporations and governmental agencies throughout the Valley in the 1990’s and early 2000’s. Yet, when Senator Leah Landrum’s term ends, there will be no Blacks in the Arizona State Legislature.
There has been an erosion of African-American clout the past decade. Retirement of prominent Blacks, backlash to affirmative action, the recession, continuing discrimination in hiring Blacks and financing minority businesses, big business focusing exclusively on soliciting booming Hispanic populations, the exodus of corporations, passage of SB 1080 discouraging businesses and minorities from moving to Arizona, and younger people moving to other states for better opportunities are just some contributing factors.
Despite noble efforts like Kerwin Brown and the Greater Phoenix Black Chamber’s to promote Black businesses, African-American business may feel like Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. A perusal of business magazines, corporate CEOs, and paid boards could lead visitors to believe that no Blacks live in Phoenix.
Councilman Johnson served everyone equally in the District; but he took appointments with Black entrepreneurs, featured Black businesses and non-profit activities on his television show, and provided technical assistance and support in a way that other Arizona government leaders have not. With his leaving, many African-American businesses fear they will become endangered species.