In the racially diverse Washington suburb of Greenbelt, the term “progressive” is a badge of honor. But the city that began as a New Deal-era cooperative and overwhelmingly voted for Barack Obama has never had a minority serve on its council in its 71-year history.
The gap has drawn the attention of the U.S. Justice Department and civil rights activists and is remarkable for Prince George’s County, well known for its middle- and upper-middle-class black communities.
But even some residents who see a problem don’t blame racism. Rather, they describe a chasm between the older, central Greenbelt, which is still mostly white and politically active, and the newer, outlying neighborhoods, where most of the city’s minorities live and vote less often in city elections.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland and the county NAACP suggest that Greenbelt’s at-large election system—in which all residents can vote for all the seats—is to blame. They claim it dilutes the minority vote and discourages minority participation, which violates the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
They also contend that turnout is low in more diverse neighborhoods because local elections don’t coincide with state and federal races.
Some longtime residents bristle at suggestions that Greenbelt is unfair.
“Here are these outsiders who know nothing really about our community and the demographics and all of that, and they’re telling us how we ought to act and want to change our government system,” said 88-year-old Virginia Beauchamp, who has lived in Greenbelt since 1957 and said she participated in restaurant sit-ins in 1952 in Missouri.
“It’s all a great irony,” said Cathy Knepper, author of a book about the city’s legacy said of the current spotlight on Greenbelt. “It has always been liberal and considered left-wing, or even socialist.”