When Lori Lightfoot was elected mayor of Chicago in 2019, it was a double first: the first black woman and the first openly gay woman to hold the office. But he hardly managed to enjoy the moment. In Chicago’s mayoral election last month, after a tumultuous first term, Lightfoot didn’t even make the cut in the first round –– after winning the popular vote in a runoff four years ago by nearly 50 percentage points. It is the latest proof that times and the political landscape have changed drastically. the optimism that usually accompanies the kind of ceiling-breaking that Lightfoot achieves has been tempered by new urban realities that are really old urban realities that, like so many things these days, have reached tipping point: the lack of affordable housing, the state of public schools, the upheaval of local economies; And of course crime.
Crime overshadows all of the above, for all mayors, but especially for black mayors who have to prove themselves first and foremost by making their cities “safe.” In our very tense racial climate, Black officials are more responsible than their non-Black predecessors for addressing public discomfort with safety, a concern that is invariably linked to the fact that everywhere in America, crime (regardless of who commits) has a black face. In an era of reinvigorated demands for racial justice, this is still true, perhaps more true than ever. With a big help from social media and the likes of Fox News, the old conservative tough-on-crime narrative is regaining traction across party lines, part of a long backlash against the push for police reform that began in earnest 10 years ago with the birth of the black lives matter
What irony—or perhaps just perfect timing—that this is also the same time that there are so many black mayors of major cities, from Chicago to Los Angeles, Houston to New York. However, they are burdened more than ever with solving a problem that has no quick or easy solution. At the same time, they are saddled with complaints of police brutality from BLM activists and ordinary citizens who rightly worry that the new hyper-focus on “crime” is meant to scare people of all colors and take energy away from systemic change. which BLM and anti-racist movements continue to demand.
Is it double standards and double jeopardy for black mayors? Yes. But one has to look at it through a broader lens. Our national politics is, to put it mildly, insane. We are still living in the eye of a white backlash that unofficially began with the rise of BLM, which began in the middle of the first term of America’s first black president. The tenure of Barack Obama, a son of Chicago who once organized blacks, so displeased white Republicans that it spawned a new political movement, the “tea party,” which eventually morphed into Donald Trump’s Make America Great base. again”. recoil over recoil. The inner cities were considered desperate and violent, period. However, the GOP was becoming more openly brutal towards anyone who wasn’t a straight white male. During the Obama years, bullet and gun sales soared as Republicans eagerly fueled the narrative of a radical black president hell-bent on taking away their guns and—more crucially—giving far too much quarter to the undeserving (i.e. criminals) blacks.
Since Obama left office, this white antipathy has become downright toxic. Elected officials, led by Trump and the reimagined GOP, have practically condoned violent far-right reactions to state and local officials’ proposed safety measures for the COVID-19 pandemic, such as mask and vaccine mandates. And when all this seething white resentment culminated in the violent and deadly attack on the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, Republican leaders praised it outright, saying little or nothing at all.
Thus, street-level violence is now the norm. But, of course, there is a big difference between white and black violence: The former is tolerated as justifiable political expression, the latter merely evidence of black pathology to be contained. It is black pathology that black mayors are really responsible for, even though white pathology around race frames the violence that has become so pervasive in America, destabilizing our democracy and making us all very, very unsafe. But we always managed to make black violence her own. self-sustaining, separate and disconnected from larger trends. It’s interesting how we decry black-on-black violence as a uniquely immoral phenomenon when whites and other ethnic groups kill each other at similar rates.
Once upon a time, black mayors were beacons of democratic (small “d” here) hope. When Tom Bradley was elected as the first black mayor of Los Angeles in 1973, it was a triumph for the city’s multiracial coalition that included Blacks and Jews. The days of a black figure like Bradley, Obama or Harold Washington (one of Obama’s role models and the 51st mayor of Chicago) The integration of constituents across racial lines seems too far away, impossible to recapture. Bradley, after serving for 20 years, opted to bow out of electoral politics altogether after the 1992 civil unrest that laid bare a city steeped in racial tension, with South Los Angeles widely regarded as ground zero for racial tension. injustice. on violence and crime. The white mayor who succeeded Bradley, Richard Riordan, was a wealthy businessman who ran on a platform of restoring efficiency and law and order, which has been a staple of local politics ever since.
Not that black mayors are all staunch progressives, even after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in 2020. Almost. Former Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms backed plans for the controversial “Cop City” training facility before leaving office. Bradley was a career police officer, a lieutenant in the Los Angeles Police Department, New York City Mayor Eric Adams, Chief of the New York City Police Department. both are mediocre at best.
Karen Bass, who was elected the first black female mayor of Los Angeles last year with a reputation as a progressive, began political life in the early 1990s as a grassroots organizer, like Obama. As mayor, he clashed early on with the BLM over too lax policing, namely maintaining the department’s funding levels. Bass, a coalition builder, has made homelessness — seemingly a crisis that all voters can agree is a crisis for everyone — her priority. But it is a crisis intertwined in the public mind with crime and, because of their disproportionate representation in the homeless population, with black people. Crime, in other words, is a tangled web that only seems to tighten.
Nowhere do things seem tighter right now and more complicated than in Washington, D.C., where Muriel Bowser is mayor. Bowser, a black woman, actually vetoed the District of Columbia’s new criminal code, a criminal justice reform effort that changed mandatory minimum sentences for certain crimes. Her opposition opened the door to the code being recently repealed (technically, “rejected”) in a bill passed by Congress, a bipartisan measure that Biden (reversing his previous position) is promising to sign. Beyond the astonishing racial aspect of such a move—overturning established law in a black city led by a black woman—overriding the local law is a dangerous undermining of democracy, on top of all the undermining that’s been going on for years . DC is a special case as it has long struggled to achieve autonomy through the state and escape the political interference of the Capitol. But the bill feels like a message to black mayors everywhere trying to chart their own course for public safety, to say nothing of a course for the city as a whole.