Why are there fewer black mayors leading big cities?

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan. - Barbara Barefield
Barbara Barefield
Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan.

In 2013, Mayor Mike Duggan ran a successful write-in campaign and became Detroit's first white mayor in 40 years.

In and of itself it was an impressive political feat. But a look across the country reveals a trend: There are now less black mayors leading major American cities than there used to be. In 2000, nine of the nation’s 25 largest cities had black mayors; today, that number is four.

Why the shift? It's a question probed by The Wall Street Journal today in a story titled "Decline in Black Mayors Signals Political, Demographic Shift," which offers up a number of possibilities:

Analysts point to a range of possible explanations. An influx of young, white voters to cities and movement of African-Americans to the suburbs changed the electorate in some places. In others, a sense that a city was struggling led black voters to consider a broader set of candidates. And across the country, the excitement and political empowerment that came from electing a black mayor may simply have waned.

In Detroit, all of these factors were likely at play — including the rampant corruption of the Kwame Kilpatrick era. Of the Motor City, WSJ writes:

In Detroit, an overwhelmingly black city, local experts say a desire for a new direction was at work in 2013 when the city elected a white mayor for the first time in 40 years.

For decades, the city’s debt mounted while the population shrank to less than half of what it was at its peak. City pensions drained the treasury, and services suffered. In 2013, when the city formally declared bankruptcy, almost half the streetlights didn’t work.

Those dire conditions helped elect Mike Duggan, a white health-care executive. He cruised to re-election this fall.

“Detroit had gotten to an all-time low,” said Ken Coleman, a writer and city historian, who is African-American. “Considering all that, I’m just not sure that African-Americans thought it was a necessity to have a black mayor.”

Now, Mr. Coleman said, his middle-class, African-American neighborhood has seen new streetlights installed, though he credits earlier black mayors for laying the groundwork for that improvement. Meantime, Mr. Duggan’s term has coincided with a revitalization of the city’s downtown and midtown urban core, driven by younger white people.

The city’s overall population continues to decline, but its white, non-Hispanic population is growing. And in five ZIP Codes in the city’s urban core that have seen the most economic revitalization, the white population has grown by 50%.

Read the full Wall Street Journal story here.

About The Author

Lee DeVito

Leyland “Lee” DeVito is the editor in chief of Detroit Metro Times since 2016. His writing has also been published in Hour Detroit, VICE, In These Times, and New City. He once asked porn star Stormy Daniels to spank him with an issue of Metro Times. She obliged...
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