Atlanta, Detroit, and the End of Black Political Dominance in Cities?

In the context of a political-economic (and emphasis on the first term there) crisis of unprecedented proportions, Detroit voters have elected Mike Duggan as the city’s first white mayor since 1973. Duggan opposed the establishment of an emergency financial manager for Detroit, but will be stepping into office with few defined expectations except that he will be compelled to work with that manager, Kevyn Orr, and Michigan Governor Rick Snyder. Duggan’s experience as a medical center manager in Detroit would seem to be a big factor in his election, as his yet-undefined responsibilities will involve moving the city out of bankruptcy (assuming, of course, that a judge rules that the city is eligible). On a certain level, the vote makes sense. But on the other hand, this is Detroit, where demographics and a frequently brutal history of white flight and ethnoracial conflict seemed to have made an African-American hold on the mayoralty permanent.

Political scientist Michael Leo Owens suggests that this kind of turnabout in Detroit might be remarkable but neither unique nor unexpected. In a just-published article in the Journal of Urban Affairs published with Jacob Robert Brown, Owens looks at the near-miss 2009 campaign of Mary Norwood, who sought to become that city’s first white mayor elected since 1973.

The concurrent regime change in Atlanta and Detroit (and other American cities) is not coincidental, but rose out of particular contexts of African American political mobilization, white flight, and demographic change that manifested in cities across the U.S. at roughly the same time. Owens and Brown suggest that the emergence in many cities of a generation of white (neo)liberal politicians who have made serious or even successful challenges for office  in majority-black cities is also no coincidence, and can be understood through the concept of black political demobilization. The conclude that, while demographic conditions and institutional legacies of black political organization are quite favorable in Atlanta, these conditions are insufficient to ensure continued black political control. Indeed, as the authors note,

We, however, are concerned with the ways that strong BPE may reduce the capacity of blacks to win elections; or how, in the words of an anonymous reviewer, “a black empowerment city potentially has within it the seeds of its own destruction.” (2)

This political self-destruction ought not to be confused with a racist argument that black political rule is inherently destructive to a city. Rather, the phenomenon of racial political transition is a systemic outcome of many factors, including disruptions to the black electorate, discontent by elements of that electorate with the results produced by a particular regime, and, significantly in the case of Norwood’s campaign, the mobilization of white voters through a discourse of grievance at being excluded from political control that mirrors a demobilized black electorate.

For me as a historian, this analysis is provocative and challenging, and raises several important questions about process.

For instance, if, as the authors posit, there is a cyclical pattern to BPE that wanes

as the “symbolic effect” of BPE fades and the substantive limits of governance appear over time

then what are the historical markers of that change? Is the process organic and gradual, or do particular moments catalyze awareness and presumably deep frustrations with those limits? In Atlanta, how are those limits tied to the class, social, or cultural cleavages between African American communities? How does historical analysis destabilize notions of a core idea of BPE?

Owens and Brown also destabilize the idea of the city of Atlanta as a “black mecca”, noting that for African Americans as well as whites, booming in-migration to the region has favored the suburbs, though that suburban migration has been quite racially polarized. While the city of Atlanta has long been economically squeezed by the growth of its suburbs, this squeeze no longer maps neatly onto the trope of white flight, as affluent whites now constitute one of the most likely groups to settle in the city limits. How, then, have black attitudes about the city developed and how have they affected political participation or withdrawal for residents contemplating, but not yet committed to, suburbanization? How is the city affected when black professionals move to the region without settling in the city? How are those housing choices influenced not just by the segregating influences in the market, but within black publics? I suspect that we will soon read a history of this black suburban movement that parallels Kevin Kruse’s work in White Flight.

And finally, Owens and Brown describe a key dynamic of contemporary racism, the politics of white grievance. In particular, the Norwood near-miss illustrates that many whites in Atlanta, even those moving back into a majority-black city, are motivated by a zero-sum conception of politics in which gains for African Americans come at their expense. These sentiments have troubled the official mythology of the “city too busy to hate” since the 1940s and accelerated with the election of Maynard Jackson in 1973, but today are couched in a narrative that roots racial antagonism in illicit black racial solidarity, the strength of white bloc voting for Norwood notwithstanding. I’m personally quite invested in how this discourse developed and established itself in Atlanta and the nation, and hope to share some thoughts on that in the future.

One comment on “Atlanta, Detroit, and the End of Black Political Dominance in Cities?

  1. […] city’s black majority is shrinking and white mayoral candidates have made serious noise in recent campaigns. The city limits are not the racial boundaries the were in the 1970s, and the region’s racial […]

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