Are Black Mayors Adequately Future-Proofing Cities for Black Residents?

In Birmingham, there’s a promise. In Charlotte, a 7-point plan. And in D.C., a commitment toward shared opportunity.

Most cities have an aspirational agenda for progress, but in Black-majority cities like the 1,262 that exist in America today, how Black residents actually benefit in that progress too often varies based on their zip code.

Today, Black mayors are tasked with two important roles: develop a vision for their cities which may include the adoption of smart city initiatives and large-scale tech-sector job growth; and attempt to help Black communities bounce back from decades-long discriminatory policies and disinvestment to ensure their participation in the global economy.

Shared Struggles

Black mayors are addressing crises that mirror challenges in Black communities across the nation. Of paramount concern are rising housing costs. One study by the National Low Income Housing Coalition revealed that Black Americans and other racial-ethnic minorities make up a majority of extremely low-income renters, spending nearly 50 percent of their income on housing alone.

In Atlanta, rapidly rising housing costs have reached national attention. Earlier this year, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms announced a $1 billion dollar One Atlanta plan to produce or preserve 20,000 units of affordable housing by 2026.

Mayor Ras Baraka in Newark introduced ordinances to encourage developers to use minority contractors for the construction of new housing projects and an ordinance to prevent discrimination against residents living n rent-stabilized housing.

Like many cities, these tactics seem feasible on the surface but don’t guarantee the halting of displacement amid growing gentrification and transit-oriented development projects increasing rent and home purchase prices out of reach for many residents.

As residents are pushed further out of their homes and communities to find cheaper housing, transportation access remains a concern on the equity agenda. Pew Research data shows that Black and Hispanic residents of lower incomes are more than likely to use public transportation regularly. Transportation access for Black-majority cities and communities can either exacerbate displacement and unemployment or mitigate it altogether.

In Birmingham, the city is providing $250,000 to the Via rideshare service to provide on-demand public transit for local residents. The six-month transit pilot will enable residents to book a ride for $1.50 using the Via smartphone application or by calling a phone number to ride with other passengers along their route. The pilot will begin in December, ahead of the city’s plans to introduce their Bus Rapid Transit project that will add new buses, more efficient routes, and better access to high-employment areas between predominately Black, low-income communities, and the city center.

Creating Touch Points for Innovation

As the future of work continues to be shaped and defined by automation at the hands of technological efficiency, Black mayors are guided by the harsh reality that Black residents in service-sector jobs will be most at risk for employment displacement.

Some cities are crafting opportunities to foster upskilling, internet access, entrepreneurship, and anti-discrimination policies among Black and other racial and minoritized groups.

In Columbia, SC, Mayor Steve Benjamin signed the “Ban the Box” bill that prevents employers from asking job candidates about past criminal convictions. The ordinance also prevents employers from asking about wage history.

In Shreveport, LA, Mayor Adrian Perkins hired the city’s first Chief Technology Officer to develop and roll out a strategy for increased access to broadband and other tech-enabled infrastructure in service to the city’s disconnected residents.

In D.C, Mayor Muriel Bowser launched the Inclusive Innovation Fund aimed at investing in underrepresented founders at the pre-seed, seed, and pre-series A stage. The city allocated $1.5 million dollars to the project to help the fund raise capital under the helm of The Marathon Foundation and will target scalable tech-enabled as well as non-tech companies.

Other cities are tapping their minority certification programs to increase the number of city contracts awarded to minority businesses.

Where Black Mayors are Missing the Mark 

What hasn’t been widely expressed by Black mayors of Black-majority cities is their knowledge of or concern for the increased usage of surveillance technologies in Black communities.

In Birmingham, the city council recently approved $2.6 million and a three-year contract expansion to continue deploying ShotSpotter gunfire detector systems—much of which will be placed in “high crime” areas or designated majority Black communities.

In Baltimore, Mayor Catherine Pugh and other public officials are considering bringing back a controversial surveillance plane program aimed at reducing violent crime that was deployed across the city unbeknownst to residents before residents called for an end to the program in 2016.

Rising issues around the use of surveillance technologies in public spaces, particularly in housing, are growing conversations that Black mayors should be adding to their agenda along with congress representatives Yvette Clarke, Ayanna Pressley, and Rashida Tlaib who recently introduced the No Biometric Barriers Housing Act of 2019. The act prevents the use of facial recognition technology in housing funded by the Department of Housing and Urban Development and marks one pathway forward to block the oversurveillance of Black residents in public housing.

Without explicit plans to scrutinize and audit the technologies being deployed into Black-majority communities at the hands of law enforcement and hired surveillance companies, Black Mayors leave their residents at risk in a future where privacy and public surveillance has detrimental consequences for Black residents.


Sherrell Dorsey

She is the founder and CEO of The Plug—a distinctive, Black tech news and insights platform covering Black innovators in tech, venture capital, future of work policy, and more. Follow Sherrell on Twitter @Sherrell_Dorsey.