The Urbanist Musings of Pete Saunders

How "Black = Urban" Ends

The division of power in Chicagoland.  In the foreground, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel.  In the background, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle.  They’re pictured together here in a rare joint appearance.  Source:

The urban political base that was the foundation of African-American politics since the Civil Rights Movement is slowly eroding.  African-American politicians will have to adapt or risk losing influence — and offices.

I usually don’t write directly about politics.  I mostly write about the revitalization of the Rust Belt cities that I know best and love most, and of the people who live in them.  That inevitably leads to some discussion on politics, usually at its intersection with urban revitalization.

Two months ago I wrote about the Black Power Movement’s impact on cities.  I noted the emergence of black political leadership in a select group of cities during the 1960’s and early 1970’s, when the Black Power Movement butted heads with a loosely-organized yet effective resistance to black political advances at the time:

A select group of cities elected black mayors during the brief and tumultuous Black Power Era, seeking to implement an activist social justice platform.  These cities – notably Cleveland, Gary, Newark and Detroit among large cities — became stigmatized in a way that few have been able to recover from.   A negative narrative was developed about most of them that stuck, despite considerable efforts to dispel them.  Cities that elected “first black mayors” after the Black Power Era, during a period of relative calm, were able to adapt as the political skill set grew in the African-American community. However, the Black Power Era’s near-toxic combination of heightened white racism, black disenfranchisement and disillusionment – and ill-prepared black political leadership – accelerated the downfall of these select cities.  

Cities like Cleveland, Gary, Newark and Detroit were effectively “shunned” by the white political and business establishment, at least until tensions cooled — either through the recapture of local political office by whites or the moderation of the newly-empowered black electorate.   Local black leaders seeking office did adapt as well.  African-American coalition builders surged to office like Harold Washington in Chicago and Kurt Schmoke in Baltimore in the 80’s and 90’s, and trans-racial appealists, like Kevin Johnson in Sacramento, made their race an afterthought in their ascent.  The same trans-racial appeal model led to the election of President Barack Obama.

But what lies ahead for the black electorate and black local elected officials?  Changing demographics are necessitating a broadening of the political agenda by the electorate, and a change in tactics by politicians.  Some are ready for the shift, but many are not.

Chicago and Washington, DC come to mind as two cities with waning black political influence due to demographic changes.  In highly segregated Chicago, a black political agenda was so effectively consolidated under previous mayor Richard M. Daley that few leaders have emerged to take on matters at a citywide scale.  This has happened as blacks have accelerated their move out of the city and other groups, particularly whites, have have accelerated their move into it.  DC’s case is similar; the rapid growth of the white population in the District and the black population in suburban Washington is changing the political landscape in both places.

I see black political influence moving from city to suburb, even as the level of influence recedes.  Using Chicago again as an example, blacks have made significant gains in recent years in Cook County government and in suburban Cook municipalities, at the same time that the level of influence within the City of Chicago wanes.  Given Chicago’s changing demographic landscape it’s harder to see another African-American become mayor of Chicago unless a candidate adopts a trans-racial approach.  The growth of whites, Hispanics, Asians and other groups in the city make it difficult for anyone with an explicitly racial appeal to succeed citywide.  However, suburban politics, particularly in suburban Cook County, may continue to grow as a base for black politicians.

This is one way that the conflation of “black = urban” comes to an end.

2 Responses to “How "Black = Urban" Ends”

  1. Andrew Adere

    Can't direct message on this site? Oh well…I think you confused the term \”conflagration\” with \”conflation\”, and you second to last sentence also contains an error. I believe \”make\” should probably be \”may\”, though I could be wrong on that count.



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