Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
On Tuesday, February 26, former federal prosecutor Lori Lightfoot and Cook County Board of Commissioners president Tori Preckwinkle were the top vote-getters in Chicago’s crowded mayoral race. Both women are African Americans and no matter who wins the April 2 runoff election, Chicago will have a black woman mayor for the first time in the city’s history, and its first elected black mayor since Harold Washington in 1983 (Eugene Sawyer, an African American, was appointed mayor after Washington died in 1987). Chicago did this despite suffering record-high levels of black population loss over the last few years.
Chicago has the unique distinction of having shed its overall population for three years in a row. Much of that loss was driven by a decline in the African-American population, which has dropped 24 percent since 2000. As much as there’s been a shift of black people out of Chicago there have been some intra-city shifts as well: Several neighborhoods in Chicago’s North side—where most of the city’s white population has historically lived—added black residents since 2010. These North side neighborhoods are where Lightfoot performed best in this week’s mayoral election.
Meanwhile, African-American neighborhoods in the South side and West side bled off black residents considerably this century—125,000 black families were lost from these areas between 2000 and 2010 alone, writes Alden Loury in Market Urbanism. These are the neighborhoods where Lightfoot performed the poorest. Preckwinkle performed much better throughout the South side, and came in second behind Lightfoot in many of Chicago’s North side wards.
Neither Lightfoot nor Preckwinkle were the first choice of most black voters in this election. Of the 14 people who ran for mayor this cycle, six of them were African-Americans, and of those Willie Wilson—a millionaire entrepreneur and gospel recording artist—garnered the highest percentage of black votes, while picking up the fourth most votes overall. While Lightfoot and Preckwinkle may not have been most of black Chicago’s preferred representatives, they were the two most popular candidates in almost half of the whiter north.
Which means despite the fact that Chicago is about to elect a black mayor for only the second time in its history, black voters were not primarily responsible for it. It’s too early to determine for certain who black voters will rally around in the upcoming runoff election, but either way Chicago has shown that it can elect a black mayor without coalescing a black voting bloc to do it. The low voter turnout for this election played a role in the outcome, as did the crowded field of candidates splitting up black votes. Still, two black women were able to beat out seven white candidates, one of whom was the son of former Chicago Mayor Richard Daley.
Despite the many Black Lives Matter marches, highway obstructions, brunch disruptions, and strikes, and walk-outs due to school closings in black neighborhoods, white people and Latinos still chose black women to become the next leader of the city. One could say that white voters went this route despite the city’s covering up of a cop murder of a black teenager, and a U.S. Department of Justice investigation that found corruption and racial abuse throughout the police department, but perhaps they voted for black women because of it. Lightfoot was one of the Chicago Police Department’s fiercest critics and was the chair of the city’s police accountability task force. Preckwinkle had already proven she could pull votes across racial lines by getting elected president of Cook County’s board of commissioners.
The thought leading up to this election was that for Chicago to have another black mayor, another Harold Washington, they would need a candidate that all of black Chicago could rally around. That has yet to happen, and if the black population keeps dropping, it will be more difficult for it to occur in the future. As for right now, black votes alone will not determine Chicago’s mayor. Consider that Willie Wilson won 14 wards—more than any other candidate—and yet that didn’t give him enough votes to make the runoff.
The black votes were “marginalized” in this election, wrote Chicago Tribune reporter Dahleen Glanton, which she says should be “a little scary” for African Americans. Or maybe not.
“We’ve embraced a romanticized vision of that time [when Washington was elected] and a belief that it is the template for harnessing black political power,” wrote Natalie Moore in an op-ed for Chicago public news site WBEZ. “The magic of 1983 won’t likely be repeated. Ever. We will be okay. … Washington’s win is a lesson to remember and study. But the state of black politics in Chicago has changed. Skin color doesn’t always equate to pushing a robust, equitable policy agenda.”
Many of Chicago’s disappeared black families ended up in the surrounding suburbs—the same places that white Chicagoans fled the city for and that they are now fleeing from themselves. The map below from a recent Brookings Institution report, part of Brookings fellow Andre Perry’s “Black Cities Rising” project, shows how Chicago, the city, and its suburbs are losing white population while the suburbs have been gaining black residents since 1970. (Though more recent years show Chicago suburbs are now losing black residents as well.)
Writing for the Chicago Reader, urban planner Pete Saunders says that the city’s legacy of racial segregation and “black avoidance” are perhaps most responsible for driving African Americans out of the city.
“Since the Great Migration the practice has been to explicitly or implicitly contain blacks within certain areas,” writes Saunders. “But as metro areas got bigger, transportation more of a challenge, and city living more desirable, new attention was given to long-forgotten places. … But for the most part the pattern of black avoidance remains.”
If segregation is what drove black people out of Chicago, then it is also responsible for marginalizing Chicago’s black voting power. That’s a serious problem. The challenge for the next mayor is to implement policies that can bring both black and white residents back to Chicago, in a desegregated way.