When Lori Lightfoot was elected mayor of Chicago in 2019, it was a double first: the first Black woman and the first openly gay person to hold the office. But she hardly got to enjoy the moment. In Chicago’s mayoral election last month, after a turbulent first term, Lightfoot failed to even make the cut in the first round –– after she won the popular vote in a runoff four years ago by nearly 50 percentage points. It’s the latest proof that the times and the political tenor have changed drastically; the optimism that usually attends the kind of ceiling-breaking achieved by Lightfoot has been dulled by new urban realities that are really old urban realities which, like so many other things these days, have reached a breaking point: the lack of affordable housing, the state of public schools, the upheaval of local economies. And, of course, crime.
Crime obscures 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 unease about safety, an unease that’s always tied to the fact that everywhere in America, crime (no matter who actually commits it) has a Black face. In an era of revitalized demands for racial justice, that is still true, perhaps more true than ever. Greatly aided by social media and the likes of Fox News, the old tough-on-crime conservative narrative is regaining traction across party lines, part of a long backlash to the push for police reforms that began in earnest 10 years ago with the birth of Black Lives Matter.
What an irony — or maybe just perfect timing ― that this is also the same moment when there are so many Black mayors of major cities, from Chicago to Los Angeles, Houston to New York. Yet they are being burdened as never before with solving a problem that has no quick or easy solution. At the same time, they’re tasked with addressing police brutality complaints from BLM activists and ordinary citizens who are rightly concerned that the new hyper-focus on “crime” is meant to scare people of all colors and siphon energy away from the kind of systemic change that BLM and antiracist movements continue to demand.
Is it a double standard and a double bind for Black mayors? Yes. But it has to be viewed through a wider lens. Our national politics is, to put it mildly, insane. We are still living in the eye of a fierce white blowback that started unofficially with the rise of BLM, which itself started in the midst of the first term of America’s first Black president. The tenure of Barack Obama, a son of Chicago who once organized Black folks, caused so much white Republican resentment that it prompted a new political movement, the “tea party,” which eventually morphed into Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” base; blowback on top of blowback. Inner cities were deemed hopeless and violent, period. Yet the GOP was becoming more openly brutal toward anyone who wasn’t a hetero white male. During the Obama years, bullet and gun sales skyrocketed as Republicans willingly stoked a narrative of a radical Black president who was hellbent on taking their guns away and — more critically ― giving too much quarter to undeserving (i.e. criminal) Black folks.
Since Obama left office, that white antipathy has gone completely toxic. Elected officials, led by Trump and the remade GOP, have practically condoned the far right’s violent responses to state and local officials’ proposed safety measures to the COVID-19 pandemic, such as mask and vaccine mandates. And when all that roiling white discontent culminated in the violent and deadly attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, Republican leaders lauded it outright, said too little or said nothing at all.
So street-level violence is the norm now. But, of course, there’s a big difference between white and Black violence: The former is tolerated as justified political expression, the latter simply proof of Black pathology that must be contained. It is Black pathology that Black mayors are really responsible for, even though white pathology around race frames the violence that’s become so pervasive in America, destabilizing our democracy and making us all very, very unsafe. But we’ve always managed to make Black violence its own thing; self-sustaining, separate and unconnected to any bigger trends. It’s interesting how we decry Black-on-Black violence as a uniquely immoral phenomenon when white people 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 Los Angeles’ first Black mayor in 1973, it was the triumph of 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) unifying constituents across racial lines feels very far away, impossible to recapture. Bradley, after serving for 20 years, chose to bow out of electoral politics altogether after the civil unrest in 1992 laid bare a city riven by racial tensions, with largely Black South Los Angeles seen by the world as ground zero for racial injustice, and also for violence and crime. The white mayor who followed Bradley, Richard Riordan, was a wealthy businessman who ran on a platform of restoring efficiency and law and order, which has been a foundation of local politicking ever since.
Not that Black mayors are all staunch progressives, even after the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd in 2020. Hardly. Former Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms supported plans for the controversial “Cop City” training facility before she left office. Bradley was a career cop, a lieutenant in the Los Angeles Police Department, New York Mayor Eric Adams a New York Police Department captain; both are moderates, at best.
Karen Bass, elected L.A.’s first Black woman mayor last year, with a reputation for being progressive, started out political life in the early 1990s as a grassroots community organizer, as did Obama. As mayor, she has clashed very early on with BLM for cutting police too much slack, namely by keeping the department’s funding levels in place. Bass, a coalition builder, has made her priority homelessness — seemingly a crisis constituents can all agree is a crisis for everyone. But it’s a crisis intertwined in the public’s mind with crime and, because of their disproportionate representation in the homeless population, with Black folks. Crime, in other words, is a tangled web that only seems to grow tighter.
Nowhere do things feel more constricted at the moment, and more complicated, than in Washington, where Muriel Bowser is mayor. Bowser, a Black woman, actually vetoed the District of Columbia’s new criminal code, an attempt at criminal justice reform that changed mandatory minimum sentences for certain crimes. Her opposition opened the door to the code being recently nullified (technically, “disapproved”) in a bill passed by Congress, a measure supported by both parties and that Biden (reversing his earlier position) promises to sign. Beyond the startling racial optics of such a move — upending established law in a significantly Black city headed by a Black woman ― overriding local law is a dangerous undermining of democracy, on top of all the undermining that’s been going on for years now. D.C. is a special case in that it has long struggled to achieve autonomy via statehood and get out from under the Capitol’s political meddling. But the bill feels like a message to Black mayors everywhere trying to set their own course on public safety, to say nothing of a course for the city as a whole.