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The Particular Challenges That Black Mayors Face

Even as cities’ African American populations decline in the face of gentrification, Black candidates can win elections if they focus on the needs of the public.

Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens speaking into a microphone with both hands raised in front of him.
Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens speaks at the Georgia Democratic Party’s state convention in Columbus on Aug. 27, 2022.
(Steve Schaefer/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)
I mentioned to Andre Dickens last year, after his victory in the Atlanta mayoral election, that he might be the last African American mayor of the city for some time into the future. He seemed surprised and asked how I arrived at that supposition, and I said it was because of the city’s changing demographics and historical racial voting patterns.

Atlanta, Dallas, Charlotte, New Orleans and other cities that have elected Black mayors in recent years are undergoing rapid gentrification and seeing shifts in their racial demographics as a result. Do those changes portend a loss of Black political power? Does the race of public officials even matter so long as they address the needs of the public?

Atlanta’s Black population today is just under 50 percent; it could be in the low 40s in seven years when Dickens leaves office if he is elected to a second term in 2025. Yet after reviewing a sampling of Black mayors recently elected in other major cities where African American voters are in the minority, it doesn’t seem to be a fait accompli that an African American candidate would lose.

In Chicago, where African Americans make up just 29 percent of the population, voters elected Lori Lightfoot mayor in 2019. Voters in Charlotte, where Black residents constitute 35 percent of the population, first elected Mayor Vi Lyles in 2017. In Washington, D.C., where the Black population is now 45 percent, Muriel Bowser was re-elected mayor in 2018 with 80 percent of the vote and is expected to easily win a third term next month. And in 2021, following St. Louis’ election of its first white woman mayor, voters elected the city’s first Black woman mayor, Tishaura Jones, even though Black residents comprise only 46 percent of the population.

These examples are not outliers, and they prove that African American candidates in cities with substantial but minority Black populations can get elected. But they also illustrate how adept Black candidates are in building multiracial coalitions needed for success. Having said that, however, we all must keep in mind that gerrymandering and other forms of voter suppression do hurt minority candidates. These tactics should be opposed by all who support democracy.

The second question I posed — does the race of the public official matter in legislating and governing? — has to be understood in a historical and political context. Part of this history is the voter suppression and other attempts to keep Blacks from obtaining the franchise through tactics of intimidation. Some of these tactics still exist today, with Republican-dominated state legislatures enacting racially biased voting laws and drawing legislative and congressional district maps aimed at suppressing the impact of the minority vote.

Suppressing any vote utilizing undemocratic strategies and tactics is obviously wrong and unacceptable. But the question of whether minority candidates are inherently better than others at serving Black constituents is mired in this ugly history of disenfranchisement.

It is clear from looking at the existence of a large underclass of Black residents in most urban cities that Black public officials, like white ones before them, have not solved every problem. Replacing white politicians with Black ones has brought about measured changes in some instances. Minority public officials have done a great job and deserve to be lauded, for example, for increasing opportunities for female- and minority-owned enterprises to do business with government at all levels. They also have hired a more diverse municipal workforce. But these accomplishments, as notable as they are, don’t in and of themselves make for a better quality of life for all residents, particularly for minority constituents who often live on the margins.

Many Black residents, particularly the elderly, are worried about being taxed or swindled out of their homes — that is, if they still own their homes given the decline in Black home ownership. In general, they face difficulty finding affordable housing for themselves and their families. And above all, African Americans often lack the skill sets needed for careers in today’s economy.

Most of these things can be addressed with better public policies. Public officials could start by calling a moratorium on demolishing apartments and public housing without a plan to build a corresponding number of affordable housing units. They could put an end to handing out large tax abatements and other incentives to developers who only want to build upscale housing, who oppose inclusionary zoning and who refuse to provide community benefits to impacted neighborhoods.

Public officials could also follow the advice of scholars like Georgia State University’s Dan Immergluck, who details in his new book Red Hot City: Housing, Race, and Exclusion in Twenty-First Century Atlanta how to bring about more affordable housing. Among other things, he found in his research that public officials in Atlanta — including during the early 1990s when I served on the City Council — were too cozy with private businesses and neglected their responsibilities to low-wage residents, failed to take advantage of the low real-estate market following the Great Recession, and didn’t leverage the advantages of the BeltLine to build more affordable housing as the trail and light rail network was being developed.

These mistakes resulted in minorities and other low-wage residents leaving the city in droves in the 1980s, 1990s and during and after the Great Recession, according to Immergluck. The failure on the part of political leaders in Atlanta and elsewhere to seize the times was partially to blame for the loss of Black residents in our major cities.

Those who share a concern about this loss and the fallout for Black public officials should focus more on issues that address the needs of all constituents: safe and clean cities; balanced growth and affordable housing; celebrating the diversity of neighborhoods; and empowering individuals with the skill sets to find high-demand careers.

If Black mayors and other public officials keep these sentiments in mind and heart, residents of their cities and towns will remain stable, diverse constituencies that will elect and keep them in office — not because they are Black but because they will have been good public servants — and the public interest will be better served.

Governing’s opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing’s editors or management.
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