Black Mayors and the Power of Local Politics

Since Donald Trump took office, the 24-hour news cycle has never lacked headlines concerning the price that the poor, the vulnerable, and people of color are paying during this Presidency. The continual chaos emanating from Washington, DC makes it easy to lose sight of the local political transformations taking place in communities and cities across our nation. Movements like #BlackLivesMatter, #Metoo, and #fightfor15 are empowering a new kind of politics that prioritizes the needs of marginalized citizens.

Nothing embodies the power of these movements better than the elections of Black mayors who made social justice and economic equity the pillars of their political platforms. Atlanta’s Keisha Lance Bottoms, St. Paul’s Melvin Carter III, Charlotte’s Vi Lyles, and Chicago’s Lori Lightfoot not only broke down barriers of race, gender, and sexual orientation in mayoral elections, but they also brought to power agendas capable of re-configuring America’s political landscape and the very nature of our American way of life. The 2018 book Market Cities, People Cities: The Shape of Our Urban Future helps us understand the wider significance of the new political priorities social justice movements brought to these recent mayoral elections. Sociologists Michael Oluf Emerson and Kevin T. Smiley argue that cities organize either in a manner that prioritizes the needs of people — what the writers refer to as “People Cities” — or the demands of the market — what they refer to as “Market Cities.” With diligent analysis, the writers display an elementary truth — consistent public policies produce predictable public results. In their research, the writers failed to find one city in America that consistently prioritizes the needs of its citizens over the demands of its corporations.

Throughout history, America divorced the belief in human equality with the demand for economic and racial equity. This divide created a cultural common sense capable of granting humanity and rights to corporations while continually questioning the humanity and rights of poor people — particularly people of color. This is bad news for those who believe that cities should cherish their citizens regardless of their wealth. The good news is that changes are afoot.

In Atlanta, Keisha Lance Bottoms campaigned on “One Atlanta” and building a city that is “affordable, resilient, and equitable.”

To address the absurdities of Atlanta’s criminal justice system, Bottoms worked to empty city jails of inmates living behind bars for no reason by signing legislation reforming bail bonds for low-level offenders. Addressing Atlanta’s economic injustices demanded much more. Bottoms created the Office of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion to reengineer the government to work in ways that her city never previously attempted. Her pledge of $1 billion of affordable housing provides the new machine its muscle. In St. Paul, Melvin Carter became the first African American mayor after the police slaying of Philando Castillo and the killer’s subsequent acquittal. In the aftermath of this tragedy, Carter’s campaign focused on practical policies to bring equity to a city where a third of the residents live near the federal poverty line. Early in his administration, Carter signed legislation ensuring that the fight for the fifteen-dollar minimum wage was not in vain. He also began building an infrastructure to provide universal College Savings Accounts with a seed deposit for all newborns. Like Bottoms, the pursuit of equity in St. Paul required the establishment of a new office in City Hall — the Office of Financial Empowerment. Not only is Carter fostering an alternative economic model, in critiquing the repugnant racial edges of the National Anthem and unabashedly recognizing his vision requires tax increases, he is working to make political rhetoric about race and justice more realistic. That is a game changer.

Charlotte’s first Black female mayor is Vi Lyles. Her campaign promoted a seven point plan to pursue equity in order to make Charlotte a city for everyone by providing economic opportunity to low income residents, accelerating the creation of affordable housing, and phasing in a $15 minimum wage for city employees. Without strong financial backing and facing a well-funded negative ad campaign, Lyles worked the grassroots to connect with 500 Charlotte residents a week. She won by almost a 20% margin. The large victory brought with it formidable political power and led to the passage of a $50 million bond proposal for affordable housing and positioned Lyles to run unopposed as she seeks re-election.

Chicago’s historic election featured two African American women in a mayoral runoff, as well as the victories of 6 democratic socialists for alderman. In a highly publicized victory, Lori Lightfoot became the first LGBTQ African American female mayor of a major American city. Although she made equity and social justice bulwarks of her campaign’s platform, time will determine Mayor Lightfoot’s impact. She often failed to garner support from leading grassroots activists due to her controversial role mediating between Chicago Police and the community as well as her long ties to Chicago’s broken political system. What is clear, however, and perhaps more important, is that Chicago is changing. Salamishah Tillet recently wrote that “Ms. Lightfoot’s victory is a part of a broader trend of black women emerging as the most influential voices in the city. Black feminists, in particular, are securing progressive victories in a place where that long seemed impossible.”

Just this spring, Chicago unveiled one of the most important aspects of its 2015 reparations victory involving the Midnight Crew’s torture of African Americans: a new mandatory curriculum for public schools entitled “Reparations Won.” The third largest city in the nation is changing and Lightfoot is positioned to make the city’s oppressed its first political priority.

In these cities, we are witnessing a struggle for the rights and dignity of poor people with an intensity and intentionality unknown in our nation since Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty — a war that nearly cut poverty in America in half. We must remember that such achievements started at the local level. Nine years before Johnson stood in Washington to declare his War on Poverty, the defiant Rosa Parks took a seat on a Birmingham bus, declaring her God-given dignity as a human being. Embracing that movement means more than hoping that things can change. It means more deeply committing ourselves to the struggle for justice with the knowledge that if we can change the character of our cities, we can change the character of our nation. Toni Morrison’s wisdom reminds us, “We cannot be optimistic. But we can be clear.” Optimism never led to the realization of justice in America — but organized outrage has. Through such organization, today’s social movements are re-writing political priorities across America and bringing political power to people too long ignored.

About the Author

Joel Edward Goza is a Contributing Writer for The North Star and the author of America’s Unholy Ghosts: The Racist Roots of Our Faith and Politics, which received a Starred Review from Publishers Weekly. Joel writes from Houston’s 5th Ward Community.