Forty years after Harold Washington, Chicago’s first Black mayor, famously declared that “it’s our turn,” Black leaders are in charge of the nation’s biggest cities: New York and Washington, D.C., Los Angeles and San Francisco, Houston and (soon) Philadelphia.
In each of those cities, complex ethnic and class coalitions elected Black mayors.
“We fought for many years to be in the driver’s seat,” New York City Mayor Eric Adams told ABC News earlier this year.
In most instances (with Chicago’s progressive Brandon Johnson being a notable exception), today’s Black big-city mayors are moderates who have resisted progressive pressure on social justice issues. But they are also sensitive to questions of economic and environmental equity.
And many have taken over at a time when cities are facing unprecedented pressures, including empty office buildings and climate change. Then there are longstanding problems, like housing segregation and the quality of public schools.
Tackling these challenges all at once may be an unenviable task — but it is also a necessary one.
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Marion Barry, unlikely role model
Few American mayors are as infamous as Marion Barry, who led Washington in the 1980s and ’90s. He is remembered today mostly for his drug use, but as Fordham historian Christina Greer recently argued in the Nation, he was much more than a caricature.
“Barry fundamentally believed that providing work would decrease crime, decrease rates of teen pregnancy, and combat the many ills that plague cities when young people do not have a place to go or their own money in their pockets,” Greer writes.
“Barry also believed that when people have purpose, they lead purposeful lives.”
Many of today’s Black mayors have taken a similar approach, rejecting ideological battles in favor of pragmatic solutions.
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With that one word, London Breed became a national star. It was December, 2021, and though the pandemic was receding, San Francisco’s struggles with crime, drug use and homelessness were getting worse. In an emotional press conference, the mayor declared that she’d had enough of street crime and open-air drug use.
“We are not a city where anything goes,” she said.
Breed was raised in a housing project by her grandmother; her brother, Napoleon, is in prison for involuntary manslaughter. Those experiences have allowed Breed to speak about criminal justice issues with a unique combination of compassion and resolve.
“Here we go, another white man talking about Black and brown people as if you’re the savior of these people,” she told a progressive white city legislator who had criticized her tough approach to open-air drug markets.
Eric Adams, in New York, has also used his own past — he grew up in poverty and later served in the New York Police Department — to argue that stopping crime is the mayor’s foremost job.
“My job is to make sure that people feel safe,” he told Yahoo News earlier this year, arguing that the city’s economic resurgence is directly tied to public safety. “They are safe, and this is going to be a good place to do business.”
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According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, almost 40% of all homeless people in the United States are Black, a gross overrepresentation compared to the general population (13% of all Americans are Black).
About one-third of all homeless people live in California, and the problem has become especially visible and vexing in Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Karen Bass, a one-time community activist in South Los Angeles who rose to become one of the most influential Black legislators in the House of Representatives, found her bid to become Los Angeles’s next mayor complicated by citizens’ frustration about the city’s spreading, sprawling homeless encampments.
Bass fended off a surprisingly close challenge from billionaire Rick Caruso, who made homelessness his top issue. The tight race focused her mind on homelessness, and she declared a state of emergency on her first day in office.
“I want Angelenos to see that tents are disappearing and not coming back,” Bass told the Wall Street Journal. So far, she has moved 14,000 people off the streets.
Read more from our partners: Homeless Camps Are Being Cleared in California. What Happens Next?
Imagining a more equal city
The effects of climate change tend to disproportionately impact Black and brown communities, which are often crisscrossed by highways, dominated by heavy industry and lacking in trees. Preparing cities for a hotter planet also means righting the wrongs of infrastructural racism.
Muriel Bowser grew up in comfortable North Michigan Park, a neighborhood favored by Washington, D.C.’s large Black middle class. As the city’s mayor, she has tried to oversee the city’s growth as an economic engine and its return from the pandemic, while not forgetting about the residents of Ward 7 and 8, largely Black sections on the eastern bank of the Anacostia River that have endured decades of neglect.
The ambitious new 11th Street Bridge Park is intended to stitch the Anacostia into the cityscape while also providing residents of Wards 7 and 8 with a new High Line-style park.
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Brandon Johnson is the second Black man to lead Chicago, after Harold Washington. He also follows Lori Lightfoot, a moderate who lost her reelection bid.
Johnson ran as an unabashed progressive and has so-far shown little desire to move to the center occupied by peers like Bowser, Adams and Breed.
His administration has sought to raise taxes to fight homelessness. At the same time, he faces a deserted downtown and persistent challenges with public safety.
Not that all is gloomy in Chicago: At the recent Lollapalooza music festival, Johnson got to enthusiastically introduce superstar Billie Eilish. “Listen, we were made for this moment,” the optimistic young mayor told a cheering audience. “The city of Chicago is bringing the entire world together.”
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