When protests erupted in Ferguson, Mo., after the killing of Michael Brown last summer, a number of media outlets emphasized the yawning racial gap in city politics. While two-thirds of Ferguson residents were African-American, the mayor was white, as were five of the six city councilors.
Baltimore, where Attorney General Loretta Lynch is visiting today following protests over the police-involved death of Freddie Gray, is different. There’s a black mayor and a state’s attorney, along with several African-American city councilmen, and a large contingent of black police officers. And yet that didn’t prevent the city from erupting into riot last week.
So, what’s the takeaway? Does it matter if African-Americans are well represented in city politics? Or not?
Judging from recent research, the answer seems to be a modest yes, it does matter. Having an African-American mayor, in particular, makes a difference in the job prospects of black residents. But note the word modest. The impact is hardly enough to erase all of the economic inequities that exist in cities like Ferguson or Baltimore.
Does having an African-American mayor help African-American residents?
It seems to. Under an African-American mayor, the unemployment rate for black residents drops by 1.5 percentage points, according to a study published last year by researchers at George Mason University. That’s partly because more African-Americans find roles in city government, but it’s also because they have better luck in the private sector.
What is more, wages go up around 6 percent, more black residents join the work force, and those who do find jobs tend to keep them slightly longer.
The chart below shows how dramatically employment opportunities actually grow for black residents after the election of an African-American mayor.
Which cities have had the most African-American mayors?
It wasn’t until the late 1960s that US cities first started electing African-Americans to the mayor’s office. Over time, African-American mayors have become common in some places, and more rare in others — based to some degree on the size of the of the black community.
Washington, D.C., is about 50 percent African-American, and it has been led exclusively by African-American mayors since 1967. In Philadelphia, where blacks make up just over 40 percent of the population, three of the last four mayors have been African-American.
Boston has never had an African-American mayor. That’s partly because blacks represent just 25 percent of the city’s population. But there are other places, like Chicago, with roughly similar black populations and at least some experience with black mayors.
Has Baltimore benefited from its mayors?
Four of the last five Baltimore mayors have been African-American, covering 21 of the last 34 years. Yet, this hardly seems to have revitalized the job market for blacks in the city.
At present, one of every three young African-American men in Baltimore is unemployed. And the poverty rate for African-Americans is a desperate 28 percent, roughly the same as it was back in 1990 and further back in 1970 (the poverty rate for whites has consistently been less than half that).
One possible reason the string of African-American mayors hasn’t seemed to buoy employment opportunities in Baltimore is that the effect has been swamped by other factors, like the collapse of manufacturing.
Through the mid-20th century, the steel industry was a major employer of blacks in Baltimore, but the US steel industry cratered in the 1970s and 1980, taking away many of those steady jobs.
Even when folks could find jobs, discriminatory housing policies like redlining kept Baltimore’s African-American families from getting loans, finding homes, and building lives in more resource-rich neighborhoods.
Add to this the war on drugs and the explosion of prison populations and you can start to see how the benefits of an African-American mayor might be swamped by other, broader forces shaping US cities.
To come back to Ferguson, what that means is that yes, according to the research having an African-American in the mayor’s office really would improve the job prospects for the city’s large black population. But on its own, such a change could only address a small part of the economic and racial inequities.