How Black women became major city mayors in recent years

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Nadia E. Brown
·6 min read
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While voters may be more comfortable with Black women mayors, candidates continue to face racist and sexist attacks

On April 6, 2021 when St. Louis Treasurer Tishaura Jones bested Alderwoman Cara Spencer (D-20th Ward) in the city’s mayoral race, she clocked yet another win for Black women politicians.

Tishaura Jones via social media.
Tishaura Jones via social media.

Jones is the first single parent to serve in this office. She successfully leveraged her intersectional identities, personal experiences, and political acumen to win her race. And she’s not alone. Other Black women — such as Kim Janey of Boston, Lori Lightfoot of Chicago, London Breed of San Francisco, LaToya Cantrell of New Orleans, Vi Lyles of Charlotte, and Sharon Weston Broome of Baton Rouge — are mayors of major U.S. cities for the first time in our nation’s history.

So why now?

My research suggests that voters are now more comfortable with electing Black women than ever before. When I began researching Black women political elites in the late-2000s, I found that voters would draw on stereotypes about Black women candidates to inform their decision-making on particular electoral races.

Fast forward to the 2020s and voters are more astute. Voters are paying much more attention to who Black women candidates are — their policy positions, personal backgrounds, and may even engage with these candidates on social media.

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This was found to be particularly true when Black women candidates ran for mayor in cities that recently experienced Black Lives Matter protests after police killed unarmed Black residents. Black citizens, especially, are more connected to electoral politics and express having a higher stake in local politics.

This finding affirms previous studies which found that Black political incorporation or political empowerment is highest in places where there are Black elected officials. However, much of these earlier studies excluded Black women mayors because mainly Black men served in this position in major cities such as Gary, Los Angeles, Detroit, and Atlanta until the 1990s.

Sharon Pratt Dixon, who was mayor of the District of Columbia from 1991-1995, is an exception, as is Doris Davis who was elected mayor of Compton, CA in 1973 and holds the distinction of being the first Black woman mayor of a major satellite city. Perhaps today’s social justice protests, 24-hour news cycle and highly partisan political climate have helped to increase the levels of political efficacy for many African Americans. This, in turn, may lead to Black voters being more knowledgeable.

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There are more Black women running for and winning mayoral positions than ever before. This means, that voters are becoming more accustomed to Black women leading major cities. While many of these electoral victories are firsts, collectively, Black women winning elected office is not a novel phenomenon.

Black women are running at record rates. This was particularly true in 2020 when at least 130 Black women launched Congressional campaigns. After the 2020 primaries, a record of nearly 60 Black women won their races and moved on to the general election. This indicates that Black women have the electoral support of voters in their districts. In sum, they are electable.

But They Face Challenges

While voters may be more comfortable with Black women mayors, this group of elected officials and candidates continues to face racist and sexist attacks –- as well as misogynoir, bias at the intersection of both race and gender.

Tishaura Jones received attention in 2017 when she alleged that the city’s major newspaper used a thinly-veiled racialized term to describe her. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch called her “high-flying” in an editorial post that she claimed was akin to the word “uppity.” As a college-educated Black woman, Jones undoubtedly has heard that phrase used against her whenever she challenges the status quo.

Jones responded via a letter in the city’s Black newspaper, The St. Louis American to point out that the PostDispatch did not have Black editorial board members and stated that she would not interview with the paper’s staff writers. This solidified Jones’ progressive brand of politics for many in the city. She recalled it as her Fannie Lou Hamer moment as she took a firm stance as a Black Lives Matter advocate who calls out racial injustice.

After the death of Mike Brown, who was murdered in 2014 in the St. Louis ex-burb of Ferguson, Mo., Jones ran a campaign for social justice and criminal justice reform. She framed her pain, frustration and outrage of Mike Brown’s murder in her identity as a Black single mother and politician.

My 2017 research establishes that Black women elected officials in Ferguson and St. Louis connect their raced/gendered identities to their understanding of post-Mike Brown lawmaking and community building​. I collected the narratives of Black women political elites to understand how they were responding to the 2014 murder of Mike Brown. What I uncovered was the resilience/frustration and hope/resistance -– two sides of the coin –- of Black women’s resolve, a concept that I developed in my book, “Sisters in the Statehouse,” to demonstrate how Black women draw on their raced/gendered identities to represent constituencies and make legislative decisions.

However, being a Black woman does not mean that these mayors will always be on the right side of social justice nor will they face dissatisfied constituents who want them to handle Black Lives Matter events differently. Lori Lightfoot’s slow response to the police killing of 13-year old Adam Toledo is one recent example.

Indeed, Black women mayors are facing criticism for their handling of protests and the pandemic. These claims must be taken seriously regardless of who occupies the mayor’s office.

My interviews with Black women elected officials in Missouri reveal that they understand these tensions. But they are drawn to public office because of a Black women’s ethos of care. Yet, they also carry a mark on their back — one that will evaluate their successes and failures in both gendered and racialized terms.

Tishaura Jones will be no different. Voters are watching and accessing Black women mayors and mayoral candidates on how they handle the issues that matter. This is the new face of Black political empowerment –- knowledgeable Black constituents who elect Black mayors.

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