Race, reform and urban voters

Nicholas Lemann

November 05, 1993|By Nicholas Lemann

WITH startling rapidity, four of America's five biggest cities have replaced black mayors with whites: first, Chicago, four years ago, then Philadelphia, then Los Angeles and this week New York. It's irresistibly tempting to see a big trend here and indeed, pronouncements of the end of an era are filling the air.

The era that has supposedly ended is that of "old" black politics -- stressing civil rights, welfare and other traditional liberal policies. Now, the argument goes, the cities have deteriorated to the point where voters want pragmatic, effective government and are willing to vote for whoever can provide it -- "new" (meaning centrist) black politicians or, as in our biggest cities, white politicians. David Dinkins lost because, by presenting himself as a race-relations expert rather than as a tough manager, he epitomized the old black politics.

Watch out for this theory. It misstates the true nature of black politics and urban politics. And as a guide to future events, it is about as useful as the prediction, widespread when Mr. Dinkins was elected, that New York would never again have a white mayor.

The boom years for African-American politicians were the early 1970s, when the lowest annual increase in the number of black elected officials was 14 percent. Two large historical forces drove the increases: the legal enfranchisement of black voters in the South, thanks to the Voting Rights Act, and the massive black migration from the countryside to the cities, which produced large concentrations of black voters. Both of these forces have long since played themselves out. There is no vast untapped pool of African-Americans who can't or don't vote.

For the last decade, the annual rate of increase in the number of black elected officials has usually been well below 5 percent. The overwhelming majority of black politicians represent black-majority districts. Outside of a few all-black small towns, the only place where a majority of elected officials are black is the District of Columbia.

Obviously, white-majority areas should never be thought of as places that will easily elect black representatives. All four of the big cities that used to have black mayors have white majorities. New York never got much above one-quarter black and Los Angeles topped out at about one-sixth.

What generated the feeling that cities like New York and L.A. would ordinarily have black mayors was an idea that all urban "people of color" would stick together politically and look to African-Americans as their natural leaders. This was the premise behind Jesse Jackson's Rainbow Coalition -- but it hasn't proved true.

In Chicago, the Latino population holds the balance of power because the city is about 40 percent black and 40 percent white. Yet it has The former black mayors of the four big cities were the kinds of minority politicians white voters found nonthreatening.

thrown in its lot with the white mayor, Richard Daley, rather than his black opponents.

Even in black-majority big cities like Baltimore, it's extremely rare to find a fiery "race man" becoming mayor, because the business establishment usually wields power far beyond the small number of votes it can deliver.

All of the former black mayors of the four big cities were the kinds of minority politicians white voters found nonthreatening. Of Mr. Dinkins, Tom Bradley of Los Angeles, Harold Washington of Chicago and Wilson Goode of Philadelphia, only Washington had any reputation among blacks as a race leader.

But before his election, he had spent a long career as a loyal member of the Daley machine, as had his father before him. Mr. Bradley was a veteran of the police force, Mr. Goode was a municipal bureaucrat with a degree from the Wharton School and Mr. Dinkins was an accommodationist who spent years rising through the ranks of the New York Democratic apparatus.

Mr. Dinkins had the added advantage of running in what is perhaps the only big, non-black-majority American city with a liberal electorate. The general rule is that the whiter the jurisdiction, the more conservative its black representative will have to be. It's no accident that the only Republican member of the Congressional Black Caucus, Gary Franks of Connecticut, is also the caucus member with the fewest black constituents.

For at least a century, one of the consistent voices in municipal politics has come from the "reform" or "good government" element: people from the middle and upper classes who long for a clean, efficient government that will foster business development. Traditionally, the reformers' opponents were the Democratic machines, which represented blue-collar and poor voters, who were intensely ethnicity-conscious in their politics.

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