Former Detroit Mayor Coleman Young became the first civil rights era mayor elected to a major city in 1974. For better or worse, the Motor City has had a black mayor since. In the current environment of decline, however, it may be time to have an intelligent discussion about whether a white mayor would be better suited to put the city on a more sustainable course.
Since 1967, Cleveland, Gary, Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Detroit, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Newark, Atlanta, Houston, Dallas, San Francisco, Denver and Minneapolis elected black mayors.
Today, almost every large city has had at least one black mayor. About 500 currently serve across America. Some represent majority black populations. Others, like Denver, represent majority white populations.
Mayor Young served for an unprecedented 20 years. His successors inherited a government rife with large budget deficits, a shrinking tax base and neighborhoods overrun by gangs, drugs and violence.
Poverty, unemployment, low-performing schools and gross negligence now characterize too many communities. But there’s no other race to blame for the devastation of lack of recovery.
Indeed, racial politics is pretty much history. More than one city has transitioned from a black to a white mayor. New Orleans, a majority black city recently elected Mitch Landrieu, its first white mayor in 32 years in a landslide victory. Baltimore, about two-thirds black, elected a white mayor, as did St. Louis, which is 51 percent black.
Detroiters have never felt obligated to elect exclusive black political figures. For years, the late Maryann Mahaffey – who was white – was the top voter getter in the City Council race. She served as president of the legislative body long after the city was predominantly black. Sheila Cockrel, also white, was elected multiple times to the council.
The 2010 Census revealed that blacks have moved out of Detroit into cities run by white mayors with apparent little concern. For them, the move reflects a desire for improved quality of life services – good schools, parks, access to jobs and less crime. This out-migration could hardly be labeled black flight. Economic flight better describes it.
The conditions in Detroit are such that residents are beginning to quietly ask whether a white mayor, his race notwithstanding, might bring sufficent resources to the office to move the franchise forward.
I don’t know if there is a white candidate interested in the Detroit mayor’s job. But for perspective, the current mayor is an import from the suburbs.
If one appeared on the political landscape – or is recruited — he or she might bring to the office new connections, new coalitions and networking that black mayors have never been able to form or exploit, including turning relationships with the corporate community into investment.
He or she might be a magnet and a comfort to whites, immigrants and gentrifiers who might be considering making Detroit their home. These groups would need assurance that the person at the helm would be sensitive to their concerns and not use government to cater to the demands of narrow identity groups.
The old guard will contend that a black mayor is more attuned to black sensitivities. The young generation of blacks can’t see any evidence that having a black mayor is advantageous, and are likely to stake their votes on more pragmatic issues like who can best create jobs and opportunity. For that matter, why should any group feel obligated to keep black politicians in office if they can’t effectively manage city resources?
I’m of the mind that Detroiters are beyond filtering a white candidate through the prism of race. I’m absolutely certain that blacks would never let a white mayor get away with the kind of rampant crime we see today with impunity, or allow neighborhoods to wither from neglect.
During the tenure of one of the last white mayors to occupy City Hall, the police department was accused of being a brutal, occupying force. The city exploded in flames and anarchy.