Could Knoxville lose minority representation on city council?

Race and representation in District 6

KNOXVILLE (WATE) – For nearly 50 years, an African American has held Knoxville’s 6th district City Council seat.

Knoxville leaders say the seat was created in the 1960s to help ensure minorities have a voice on the council. However, the field of candidates in this year’s primary has some people asking if that voice will remain.

Former 6th District Councilman Theotis Robinson

Longtime civic leader and former 6th district Councilman Theotis Robinson says it is vital to have African-American presence remain on the council. Without it he says the Mechanicsville area wouldn’t have Malcom Martin Park. He also says there was a time when African-American police officers didn’t have a chance to advance in rank at the Knoxville Police Department. With an African American presence on the council, he says that changed.

“You need many voices at the table,” said Robinson.

Robinson said he is worried this year’s election may leave the council without an African-American voice. He says the changing demographics of downtown, which makes up a big part of the 6th district is a big reason for this.

Knoxville City Council Districts

Over the past decade, Knoxville’s invested a lot of resources revitalizing downtown and encouraging people to move to the center of the city.

“Neighborhoods that  have existed for a very long time have shifted from black neighborhoods to white neighborhoods,” said Robinson.

The result is a handful of white candidates in the field of 13 for this year’s 6th district primary.

District 6 Candidates for Knoxville City Council

Joyce Brown
Joyce Brown

Voter turnout in the 6th district is typically low in primaries. Only about 550 voted during the last election. Robinson is concerned the votes for the nine African-American candidates could be spread thin, possibly leading to an all-white general election.

While Robinson says having no minorities on the council means African-Americans’ interests may not be represented in city government, WATE 6 On Your Side political analyst George Korda says that’s not giving Knoxville enough credit.

“That race is absolutely the primary component of how I will make my decision, I think that’s shortchanging a lot of people in terms of how they choose their elected officials,” said Korda. “The question becomes: Is it impossible for a white representative to represent the black community? If you were to say, ‘well, this is a historically black seat so therefore a white shouldn’t be in it,’ couldn’t you also say, ‘well this is a historically white seat so therefore a black shouldn’t be in it?'”

The 6th district voters WATE 6 On Your Side talked with said they were open to voting for a candidate of any ethnicity, saying their vote will be based on more than the candidates’ skin color.

“I don’t think that should be a concern for anyone, as long as the representative has the concerns of the district in their heart, that’s all that’s required,” said voter Ryan Herrman.

However the results shake out, Korda and Robinson say the issue of balancing downtown renewal with minority representation is here to stay. Knoxville and other cities are seeing the same changes across the country.

“The effort has to be on educating the public and turning out to vote,” said Robinson. “If people from my community go to the polls, this won’t be an issue.”

The primary is August 29 and the last day to register to vote is July 31.

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