Internet Explorer 11 is not supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

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.

Charlotte Mayor
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 Now, they’ve all been replaced by white successors.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.” 

Alan Greenblatt is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
Special Projects
Sponsored Stories
The 2021 Ideas Challenge recognizes innovative public policy that positively impacts local communities and the NewDEAL leaders who championed them.
Sponsored
Drug coverage affordability really does exist in the individual Medicare marketplace!
Sponsored
Understand the differences between group Medicare and individual Medicare plans and which plans are best for retirees.
Sponsored
For a while, concerns about credit card fees and legacy processing infrastructure might have slowed government’s embrace of digital payment options.
Sponsored
How expanded financial assistance, a streamlined application process and creative legislation can help Black and brown-owned businesses revive communities hit hardest by the pandemic.
Sponsored
In recent years, local governments have been forced to adapt to a wildly changing world, especially as it pertains to sending bills and collecting payments.
Sponsored
Workplace safety is in the spotlight as government leaders adapt to a prolonged pandemic.
Sponsored
While government employees, students and the general public had to wait in line for hours in the beginning of the pandemic, at-home test kits make it easy to diagnose for the novel coronavirus in less than 30 minutes.
Sponsored
Governments around the nation are working to design the best vaccine policies that keep both their employees and their residents safe. Although the latest data shows a variety of polarizing perspectives, there are clear emerging best practices that leading governments are following to put trust first: creating policies that are flexible and provide a range of options, and being in tune with the needs and sentiments of their employees so that they are able to be dynamic and accommodate the rapidly changing situation.