When we launched the ESSENCE-PolicyLink Mayors Roundtable earlier this year, we wanted to create a network for Black women mayors to exchange ideas, share best practices, and shine a spotlight on their work and communities. Black women and their families experience some of the worst economic and health disparities in the nation and are often not at the table where decisions impacting their communities are made. The growing number of Black women mayors is critical as cities drive the U.S. economy and have the potential to put the country on a path to a prosperous, inclusive future.
Since launching, we hosted monthly roundtables with expert speakers to discuss a range of topics from entrepreneurship to mental health to gentrification. The culmination of this partnership took place last month during the 25th Essence Festival in New Orleans, where the mayors took the Power Stage. Rochester, NY Mayor Warren summarized their roles saying, “We are our city’s first responders, our mayoral seat belongs to our communities, not us.”
However, with the 2020 election gearing up, this network has taken on greater significance as women of color serving in elected office have been routinely attacked and communities of color maligned. Most recently, President Trump described Baltimore, MD – a majority Black city – as “rat and rodent-infested” and claimed, “no human being would want to live there.” While many urban areas are in need of significant investment – from housing to infrastructure to schools – Trump and his ilk routinely insult cities rather than seeing them as deserving of assistance. In an article for the New York Times, Emily Badger explained, “Urban problems on this scale can rarely be solved without federal intervention. Federal-scale policies helped [create] them. And some of those same federal policies also depleted the ability of cities to respond to current crises.” Instead, attacking urban areas on the national level has long been a part of American politics.
Time and again, politicians and pundits – even on the left – have expressed the need to focus on “real America” and win over the coveted white working-class voter, dismissing cities as simultaneously being the playgrounds of wealthy elites and where inner cities are plagued by a culture of poverty. Somehow, these residents are less deserving of a voice in politics, despite being excluded from society at every turn.
For decades, the federal government invested in the creation of a white suburban dream. Mortgage guarantees for white households and the construction of the interstate highway system (which decimated Black communities) created a literal pathway for white people out of cities. As a result, people became increasingly divided physically and ideologically – solidifying the role of race and place in American politics.
Today, politicians increasingly work to eliminate the political influence of urban areas. Following the 2018 midterm election, Robin Vos, the Republican speaker of the Wisconsin State House expressed the sentiment that urban voters don’t count explaining, “If you took Madison and Milwaukee out of the state election formula, we would have a clear majority.” And many red states have actively worked to undermine the power of cities. In 2016, roughly 36 states introduced “preemption laws” that prohibit cities from passing certain policies, such as gun control, minimum wage, and transgender rights. And voter suppression tactics, such as limiting polling sites and purging voter registration, specifically target urban areas. The sidelining of urban America is a threat to our democracy and undermines the strength of our communities and nation as a whole.
As the 2020 race continues to ramp up, leaders must put forth a comprehensive urban agenda – one that expands democracy and public participation; ensures a right to affordable housing; calls for the investment of resilient infrastructure and water equity; and outlines a path toward good jobs in the face of automation.These are issues leaders on all sides should champion.
To be clear, cities are still just one part of the puzzle and we must also invest in suburban, rural, and tribal communities alike. We are more interconnected than ever and can’t afford to have any community left behind. But leaders shouldn’t shy away from having a clear urban agenda for fear of ignoring “real Americans.” Real America is diverse.
As public attention increasingly focuses on the presidential election, the women of this network will continue to focus on the issues that impact these communities long marginalized in our democracy. Our national leaders must do the same.