Why more Black elected officials hasn't necessarily meant better lives for Black Americans

David Dinkins, Keisha Lance Bottoms, Muriel Bowser, Bernard Hogan-Howe, and Wilson Goode
[Steve Eichner/WireImage; Paras Griffin/Getty Images; Paul Morigi/Getty Images; Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images; Bettmann/Contributor/Getty Images]
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“The date 13 May will be forever etched in my mind,” former Philadelphia Mayor W. Wilson Goode wrote in an article for The Guardian this past May. In the piece, Goode called on the city of Philadelphia to formally apologize for the infamous MOVE bombing that took place on May 13, 1985, which targeted the commune owned by members of the militant Black liberation group MOVE. “There can never be an excuse for dropping an explosive from a helicopter on to a house with men, women, and children inside and then letting the fire burn,” he wrote.

It may seem like a searing repudiation of the actions of his city. But the bombing took place while Goode was mayor — the city’s first Black mayor, in fact. Six adults and five children were killed in the explosion, and 61 homes were burned to the ground in the resulting blaze. Goode denied direct involvement in the decision to drop explosives in the middle of a residential neighborhood, but the event happened on his watch.

Then Walter Wallace Jr. was fatally shot this October by Philadelphia police officers roughly a three-minute drive from the MOVE bombing site. Wallace’s killing motivated Philadelphia City Councilmember Jamie Gauthier to act on Goode’s suggestion: On Oct. 29, Gauthier introduced a resolution formally apologizing on behalf of the city of Philadelphia for the 1985 bombing. “We can draw a straight line from the unresolved pain and trauma of that day to Walter Wallace Jr.’s killing earlier this week in the very same neighborhood,” Gauthier said, per The Philadelphia Inquirer. “What’s lying under the surface here is a lack of recognition of the humanity of Black people from law enforcement.” The resolution passed unanimously Nov. 12.

Goode’s op-ed was published just a few weeks before George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police, launching a summer of protests that brought tens of thousands of people across the country into the streets. Elected officials offered their usual refrains: urges for calm, condemnations of property damage, or disruptive acts of protest and unrest. Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, Mayor Muriel Bowser of Washington, D.C., and Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot — three Black, Democratic mayors of three majority-Black major metropolitan areas — rose to prominence for their handling of the protests. All three made an attempt to demonstrate some empathy, and yet all three also permitted their city’s law enforcement organizations to tear gas, brutalize, violently arrest, and in some instances, permanently maim protesters.

Despite this, when the Democratic National Convention rolled around in August, all three mayors were highlighted as token examples of the party’s racial diversity. Whoever decided on the lineup somehow managed to ignore the fact that these women had deployed militarized police forces against would-be voters all summer long, and saw only the color of their skin and the title of their office instead.

The role of Black mayors as both racial liaisons to the Democratic Party and vectors for oppressive anti-Black policies and practices is, in fact, an old one. Of course this doesn’t mean that all Black mayors or Black elected officials fall into this category. But whenever Black politicians presume racial solidarity with their Black constituents purely on the basis of a shared racial experience, it taps into this history. And while symbolic measures of solidarity and support are cute, a giant painted hashtag just isn’t going to cut it in 2020.

The complicated rise of Black elected officials can be traced back to the wave of Black empowerment and Civil Rights movements during the 1950s and ‘60s. Between the first half of the Great Migration and the political unrest and upheaval during the Civil Rights era, the demographics of major cities began to shift: White flight settled in and accelerated through the middle of the 20th century, and the momentum around the Civil Rights Movement made the idea of Black political representation both appealing and achievable, particularly for metropolitan areas with growing Black populations.

In Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s book, From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation, she dives deeper into the economic conditions, population shifts, and legislative proposals that helped to shape this new Black electoral landscape. In the years during and after the Civil Rights Movement, electoral politics became an appealing pathway for Black Americans to organize themselves, demonstrate their political agency, and assert their hard-won right to vote as U.S. citizens. In turn, the drive to fill elected positions with Black faces helped cultivate a class of Black political elite that, in some ways, ultimately prioritized their allegiance to the Democratic Party over securing meaningful protections for struggling Black communities.

“Promoting more Black political participation on a local level was a project of the Black movement, but the broader political establishment approved,” Taylor writes. “The government and politicians widely promoted greater Black control of urban space as a preventative measure against urban uprisings.” The hope was that Black politicians might be better at convincing Black communities to forgo protests and riots in moments of tension.

“The utility of Black elected officials lies in their ability, as members of the community, to scold ordinary Black people in ways that white politicians could never get away with.”

By 1974, the country had 108 Black mayors in office, according to The New York Times. Overall, Taylor explains, the number of Black elected officials had grown from 1,400 in 1970 to nearly 5,000 by 1980. But the ‘80s brought high unemployment levels in majority Black communities along with an influx of addictive drugs, and new laws that criminalized them harshly. Poverty rates remained high; prison populations started ballooning. As economic instability grew and the social safety net diminished, crime rates rose. And with that, Black mayors were under increased pressure from their white political colleagues to prove their merit.

“The utility of Black elected officials lies in their ability, as members of the community, to scold ordinary Black people in ways that white politicians could never get away with,” argues Taylor. “Black elected officials’ role as interlocutors between the broader Black population and the general American public makes them indispensable in American politics.”

There’s plenty of evidence of this. Melvin Randolph “Randy” Primas Jr., the first Black mayor of Camden, New Jersey, was elected in 1981. He supported a proposal to build a $55 million new prison, saying, “I view the prison as an economic development project. ... I need revenue to run a city. I don’t think a prison is as negative as people make it out to be.” In the early 1990s, the first Black woman mayor of D.C., Sharon Pratt, used her position to try to move the National Guard in to occupy the city’s Black neighborhoods in an attempt to fight the city’s label as the “murder capital” of the country. President Bill Clinton denied her request the first time, but she tried a similar tactic in 1994 and was ultimately successful in deploying agents from the F.B.I., U.S. Capitol Police, and the Drug Enforcement Agency to D.C.’s Black neighborhoods. New York City’s first Black mayor, David N. Dinkins, who passed away earlier this month, dealt with the city’s high crime rates in the early 1990s by “expanding the police to record levels,” according to the Times. And of course, Philadelphia’s first Black mayor, Goode, presided over the bombing of a Black residential neighborhood.

David Dinkins after winning the New York City mayoral race in 1989. [Photo by Luc Novovitch/Liaison/Getty Images]

Back then, Black elected officials couldn’t afford to not be seen as “tough on crime” if they wanted a career in politics, and the same holds true now. When politicians are seen as too lenient on issues of criminal justice, they risk losing votes. It’s far easier — especially during a campaign year — for politicians to address the reality of the high crime rates by pushing for more police officers on the street, bloated police department budgets, and enforcing tougher punishments. Studies have shown that hallmark “tough on crime” policies, like “broken windows” policing, the 1994 crime bill, and New York City’s plainly racist “stop and frisk” policy don’t reduce crime rates, but the logic has remained an effective way for politicians to maintain support from constituents.

So, as Black elected officials were getting elected in the ‘80s and ‘90s, they stuck with this idea of law and order — which essentially meant criminalizing economic instability first, and then hopefully figuring out how to address the unemployment rate later. It meant backing harsher sentencing laws and expanding the surveillance and reach of law enforcement in Black communities to prove that Black populations were indeed governable and able to be managed. It meant sticking with status quo social policy in order to prove their understanding of the political game, even if it came at the expense of their constituents.

Fast forward a few decades, and Black mayors and elected officials still have every reason to acquiesce to the Democratic Party on one hand and function as feel-good identity representation on the other. The pendulum for any tokenized individual attempting to function in a space that historically excluded them constantly swings between choosing to condone the status quo in order to maintain power and influence, and choosing to disrupt existing conditions by advocating for something new, something more radical, something else. The majority of established Black lawmakers and Black career politicians — though they might genuinely have the best intentions — have largely opted to advocate for the needs of their Black constituents only so far as precedent allows.

And because of their identity, they can underperform or simply do the bare minimum in political advocacy, and still be considered progressive. We’re still at a stage in this country where the first Black person to fill a certain position in government is news enough to make headlines, so just existing as Black elected official is still indicative of a certain level of achievement.

But in recent years, the demand from constituents has changed. The scale of grassroots organizing has increased dramatically and Black lawmakers are finding that for modern Black voters, true racial representation requires substantive policy work and advocacy rather than just a shared skin color. Today’s voters are publicly and vocally demanding more of their elected officials; even leaders who took office in recent years, like Bottoms, Lightfoot, and Bowser, have found themselves at odds with some of their Black constituents as the political landscape has rapidly shifted underfoot.

As a result, we’ve seen another new wave of Black candidates — this time, individuals whose roots are in the community rather than the statehouse. Some of them are even unseating Black legacy politicians, as we saw with Congresswoman-elect Cori Bush’s incredible campaign win in St. Louis, Missouri. The insurgence of first-time Black candidates echoes the turn towards electoral politics in the mid-20th century. Then, as now, candidates were cutting their pre-lawmaker teeth during a period of intense movement work, expansive social justice campaigns, and heightened activism and community organizing.

But this time around, the goal isn’t just to place a Black lawmaker in elected office. It’s about deliberately and proactively connecting campaigns to specific progressive political issues. It’s about linking arms with constituents and marching for a $15 minimum wage, about demanding sentencing reform, and about finding new, innovative ways to address the housing crisis. It’s about being proud Black lawmakers, proud members of their Black communities, and proudly saying upfront that they are accountable to those constituents and their needs.

This new framing might put these new lawmakers at odds with the Democratic Party establishment. But it’s important to remember that elected officials answer to their constituents, not their colleagues. And if this progressive trend holds steady, Black lawmakers might actually be able to rebuild and reinforce a level of genuine trust and connection with their base in a way that changes the electoral landscape of this country permanently, ensuring that Black political power actually results in more empowered Black communities.