What Use Are Black Mayors?

Jerry G. Watts
Jerry G. Watts
An Open Letter to the National Conference of Black Political Scientists
by Jerry G. Watts

According to some in the national media, the televised images of New Orleans following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina may serve as catalysts to reintroduce into the consciousness of Americans (read white Americans) the continuing significance of race and class subjugation in America. Though the awakening of the American public to the existence of horrible inequalities may have been an unintended benefit of Hurricane Katrina, it does not outweigh the naked realization that there was simply no evacuation plan for poor black residents of New Orleans. Within the planning offices of city, state and federal bureaucracies, decisions had been made to ignore the plight and needs of these people. It was as if there was a coordinated “****-em” issued from those very agencies that supposedly existed to protect American citizens, including poor black ones. Impoverished black survivors of the New Orleans travesty can never doubt their insignificance in the eyes of the broader American social order. Who can accurately forecast the impact of this stunting realization on their future lives?

Though the events in New Orleans might have brought American racialized poverty into the national spotlight, we know that these images will not endure. After all, Americans suffer from a society-wide case of historical amnesia. Though images of New Orleans will be commercialized by those requisite television mini-series that will undoubtedly emerge from various entertainment outlets, the memories of those actual horrific scenes in New Orleans and the underlying realities that they gave visibility to will quickly fade into oblivion. Besides, even if the media coverage of Katrina’s aftermath forced large numbers of Americans to confront a racially and economically marginalized population in New Orleans, this does not necessarily guarantee that this suffering engaged their moral consciences. White Americans have a long and rich history of recognizing black suffering but excluding it from their universe of moral concern. A less widespread but equally disgusting moral evasion (concerning the black poor) takes place daily among a growing number of blacks, particularly affluent ones.

As a political scientist who studies the political experiences of blacks in the United States, I think that the situation in New Orleans offers scholars of Afro-American politics a unique vessel for reflection. It is high time that we begin to question the analytical premises that have governed a great deal of the scholarship produced in the past few decades by black and white scholars of urban politics. First and foremost, we need to bring under scrutiny all of those analytical paradigms that presume that blacks (always imagined as a collective horde) collectively gain political inclusion or incorporation when black elites enter the ranks of a city’s governing elite. After all, black elites have been part of the governing coalition of New Orleans for almost twenty-five years. During that same period, the black poor of New Orleans have become increasingly entrenched in poverty. Simply put, scholars of black politics need to begin asking questions concerning the viability of urban electoral politics as a mechanism for generating upward mobility of impoverished populations. We may discover that electing black mayors has had a minute impact, if any impact at all, on the upward mobility of the poor.

When I began graduate study in political science during the mid-1970s, I naively assumed that most black politicians were committed to bettering the lives of the least fortunate among us. Certainly I was aware that blacks had historically produced our share of political opportunists and hustlers but I thought that the ethos of the times had generated a widespread political commitment to “race advancement” particularly among those blacks who now sought political office. Having come through the fires of the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Power era, blacks were creating a “new black politics.” Similarly, those of us who were newly emerging in the scholarly world believed that we would create novel ways of discussing and analyzing this new black politics. Black euphoria had greeted the elections of Carl Stokes in Cleveland, Richard Hatcher in Gary and Kenneth Gibson in Newark. When I entered graduate school in 1975, the inability of these mayors to reverse the declining economic fortunes of their cities had not yet become well known. By the late 1970s, there was sufficient evidence to document the inability of these newly elected black mayors to substantively improve the plight of the poor in their cities.

Our scholarly response to black mayoral failure generally assumed four different types of arguments. One group of scholars assumed that the failure on the part of these black mayors to improve the economic plight of the black poor was due to their weak commitment to these goals. Simply put, we had elected the wrong people. The right persons in office would solve the problem. Another group of scholars argued that these black mayors were utterly powerless to help the black poor. To the extent that the economic elites in these cities remained white, black political figures had limited, if any, true power. In order to gain authentic political control over a city, blacks had to enter the ranks of that city’s economic elite.