Where Have All the Black Mayors Gone?

Depending on the outcome of a potential recount, Atlanta's election on Tuesday could either counter or worsen the nationwide decline in the number of big-city black mayors.
by | December 2017
Charlotte's new mayor, Vi Lyles (left). (AP Photo/Nell Redmond)

Last month’s elections brought a lot of diversity to city halls around the country. Minneapolis elected two transgender candidates to the city council. Hoboken, N.J. will have a Sikh mayor. Topeka, Kan., elected its first Latina mayor, while Charlotte and New Orleans both elected their first black women mayors. St. Paul, Minn., and a number of smaller cities elected their first black mayors ever, while Helena, Mont., is about to swear in its first black mayor since the 19th century.

But, at least in terms of black representation, those wins run counter to the larger trend that’s seeing fewer black politicians elected to lead major cities. Until recently, Jacksonville, Memphis, Philadelphia and San Antonio all had black mayors. Now, they’ve all been replaced by white successors. Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, who is white, defeated Coleman Young II, the son of that city’s first black mayor, to win re-election last month. The nation’s largest cities -- New York, Los Angeles and Chicago -- have each had just one black mayor, and that was some time ago.

By 2000, 19 of the country’s 50 biggest cities had or would soon have black mayors, Forbes recently reported; by 2017, that number had fallen to six. This shift is perhaps most strikingly illustrated by Atlanta. Back in 1973, Atlanta was the first major city in the South to elect an African-American mayor. This month, Mary Norwood could become the city’s first white mayor in nearly half a century.

But first, she'll have to beat Keisha Lance Bottoms, the black candidate who claimed victory on election night with just 700 or so votes more than Norwood. Norwood has requested a recount.

In the 1970s and 1980s, when blacks were first being elected mayor in several major cities, urban America was in decline. Many whites had decamped for the suburbs, downtowns were largely empty and violent crime was on the rise. The fact that blacks were winning political power under such circumstances was described as a “hollow prize” by academics.

Today, many cities are booming, gaining jobs and population. In a lot of cases, those population gains have been driven by whites. In Atlanta, for example, the black share of the population has declined by 10 percentage points over the past decade. It’s still a black-majority city, but just barely. “In the ’80s, a lot of white people were leaving the city,” says Andrea Benjamin, a University of Missouri political scientist. “Now, a lot of them are coming back.”

What’s more, voter turnout among blacks tends to run behind that of whites. That can be exacerbated when African-Americans have had expectations elevated by black leadership that failed to deliver results, says Melissa Marschall, who runs a center on local elections at Rice University. “Some research has shown that especially if first-time black mayors don’t make good on promises made to black voters, those voters become more disaffected,” she says. They may think, “‘We elected one of our own and we’re still not getting anything, so why bother?’”

That doesn’t mean white candidates can ignore black voters. Whites must court them, pledging to improve government without arguing in explicitly racial terms that previous black leaders failed, says Michael Leo Owens, an Emory University political scientist. “White candidates can figure out the right tone, condemning city hall without seeming like they’re making an attack on black leadership.”