top of page

Opinion: Are Black Voters Turning Their Backs on Black Politicians?

Black Voter

Since the mid/late 20th century, Black politicians have been a figure of Black power and progress. It’s almost a guarantee that in places with large Black populations, you’ll see lawmakers both local and federal that look like the people they serve. But in recent elections, there seem to be signs of that status quo changing.

The Loosening Grip of the Black Fist

Detroit is one of the country's Blackest cities. But you wouldn’t be able to tell from the top lawmakers. White Democrat Mike Duggan has won three elections and has led the city for more than 10 years, breaking a long 50-year-old streak of Black Detroit mayors. Second-generation Pakistani-American Rashida Talib and Indian-born Shri Thanedar represent both of Detroit’s House districts. And white politicians Gary Peters and Debbie Stabenow are Michigan’s only delegates in the senate. For the first time since the Jim Crow era, Motown is left with no Black representation in Congress. Not only is this trend of Black voters turning away from Black politicians concerning, but it’s spreading.

In Atlanta, a place hailed as the “Black Mecca” of America, former mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms just barely defeated her white opponent Mary Norwood by 832 votes in the 2017 election. Stacy Abrams worked hard to fight voter suppression in the state of Georgia after losing a close race to white Republican Brian Kemp. But, in 2022, Kemp’s support from Black voters more than doubled and Abrams was sent home again. And Chicago mayor Brandon Johnson only won the runoff race in 2023 by a measly five points against his white Democrat peer Paul Vallas.

The cracks forming in the Black political power structure are becoming more obvious with each voting cycle. Cities that are supposed to be places of Black excellence and solidarity seem to be slowly turning their backs on Black politicians. While there’s no study or data to give us hard evidence as to why this is happening, there seem to be clues hidden in the past that can shed light on the troubles of the present.

Why Black People Loved Black Politicians

The first wave of modern Black politicians came at the tail-end of the civil rights era in the early 70s. As hardcore racism began to soften across the country, many activists and organizers switched gears from shouting for change outside of the government to working for change on the inside. Bobby Rush was a Black Panther, Marion Barry was a founder of the SSOC (Southern Student Organizing Committee) and Coleman Young was accused of being a communist for his work with the National Negro Council. Though they all toned down their more radical beliefs over time, the passion to improve Black lives in their cities stayed with them. Rush championed the Blair Holt Firearm Owner Licensing and Record of Sale Act. Marion Barry is responsible for the incredibly successful DC Summer Youth Employment Program. And Colman Young almost single-handedly overturned the racist political machine that had plagued Detroit for decades.

This is the kind of action Black people expect from Black politicians. These are the kind of people who Black people will fight through voter suppression to support. But over the past few decades, there seems to be an increasing number of facetious Black candidates that pop up with every election. 

Real Recognizes Real (Most of the Time)

If we examine the string of mayors Detroit has had since Colman Young, Mike Duggan’s election starts to make a lot more sense. Dennis Archer was constantly at odds with local Black activists, Kwame Kilpatrick stole from the city and used the mayor’s mansion like a frat house, and Dave Bing was an incompetent leader in a time of great crisis. The examples of modern Black politicians only get worse as we look beyond Detroit. In 2015, during the height of the Baltimore unrest in response to the police killing of Freddie Grey, then-mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake referred to the citizens in the streets as “thugs” who were trying to tear down what previous generations of Baltimoreans had built. During his time as mayor of New Orleans, Ray Nagin accepted over a half-million dollars worth of bribes for post-Katrina reconstruction contracts. And Black Republicans like Tim Scott and John James constantly defend the white supremacy in their party in an effort not to seem “woke”.

The common thread among these modern examples is that activism and pro-Black mentality seem to have taken a back seat to mainstream political issues and party solidarity. If you compared the resumes and voting records of many of these mayors and representatives, they’d be almost indistinguishable from their white counterparts. They might have a speech or two about racism, or they might have presented some grants to a few minorities. But when it comes to creating and pushing legislature that specifically helps Black people, they fall terribly short of their predecessors.

That isn’t to say that all hope is lost though. There are still many Black politicians who do good for their community. Folks like the late Flint City Councilman Eric Mays and House Rep. Jasmine Felicia Crockett have both gone viral for their bold words against racism and the mistreatment of citizens. Rep. Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick has taken strong stances for multiple pro-Black issues like the CROWN Act and aid for the crisis in Haiti. And Mayor Chokwe Lumumba of Jackson Mississippi has spent the entirety of his term resisting gentrification and fighting to hold the state government responsible for harming the predominantly Black city he’s in charge of leading. 

There are obviously a large number of Black Politicians still dedicated to helping their people, but the ratio is off. Black voters are starting to see no difference between a Black politician who ignores their community and a white politician who ignores their community. Even worse yet, It’s hard to tell which smiling candidate really wants to help, and which wants power and status. It’s easy for a lawmaker to stand on a podium and quote MLK, but it’s hard for an audience to tell who really means it.

As hard as it might be to pull off, Black politicians who actually mean to do good for their community need to start differentiating themselves from the ones who don’t. It’s still true that only Black people can be relied upon to consistently side with Black issues. But It’s becoming increasingly clear to voters that not all Black politicians share the same pro-Black mindset. You might get a Chokwe Lumumba, or you might get a Ray Nagin. For the sake of Black political power, those with good intentions need to make it clear who’s real and who’s faking. Otherwise, we might begin to see the government of other Black cities start to look a lot like Detroit’s.

Photo Credit:


QG - Ernie Hudson copy 4.jpg
bottom of page