Pandemic Power: Black women mayors shine during COVID-19 Crisis

Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms (Atlanta, GA), Mayor LaToya Cantrell (New Orleans, LA), Mayor Lori Lightfoot (Chicago, IL). 

Governors such as Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan, Andrew Cuomo of New York and Mike DeWine of Ohio have been the most high-profile politicians leading the country’s fight against the deadly COVID-19 pandemic. However, as effective as these governors have been, there is also a group of female African American mayors of large U.S. cities who also have been at the forefront of the battle while leading their cities through this crisis of a lifetime.

Mayors Keisha Lance Bottoms of Atlanta, Lori Lightfoot of Chicago and LaToya Cantrell of New Orleans by most accounts have demonstrated grit, determination and the kind of leadership needed to help their citizens navigate the ravages of the disease at a time when there is a lack of national leadership to help them. And, in the case of Mayor Bottoms, her own governor is working against the public health interests of her city.

The former judge and city Councilmember wrote in a recent article for Atlantic Magazine that her city was not ready to resume business as usual even as her state’s right-wing neo-Confederate Gov. Brian Kemp was impulsively ending Georgia’s state of emergency and shelter-in-place order enacted just a few weeks earlier.

“As the mayor of Georgia’s largest city, I expressed opposition to Gov. Brian Kemp’s recent order allowing certain businesses—dine-in restaurants, gyms, hair and nail salons, barbershops, tattoo parlors and bowling alleys—to reopen before health experts say doing so is safe. I hope the day for Atlanta to endorse such a move will come soon, but it is not here yet,” she wrote.

Atlanta is the largest city in the state, it’s the state capital and the seat of Fulton County, which has nearly 3,000 confirmed cases and almost 100 deaths as of last Tuesday, according to the Georgia Department of Public Health. Fulton has the most cases out of Georgia’s 159 counties. There have been nearly 23,000 cases and 1,000 deaths statewide.

According to the Economic Policy Institute, African Americans face a higher risk of exposure to the COVID-19 virus, mainly because they live in urban areas and are employed in essential industries. Only 20 percent of black workers reported being eligible to work from home, compared with approximately 30 percent of their white counterparts.

Proof that Bottoms’ task of keeping her constituents safe was made exponentially more difficult after the Kemp announcement came in the form of a photo this week circulated across the internet and in newspapers throughout the country. It was of a large crowd of people, mainly young African American men, bunched together outside a sneaker store at a local mall waiting to buy the latest version of Air Jordan’s.

The photo was taken barely 24 hours after Kemp—who rose to power after engaging in massive campaign of suppressing Black Georgians right to vote—had given the green light to those businesses to open without the mayor’s consent.

“He did not speak with me before he lifted the first set of restrictions, but I can say we did speak yesterday and we have essentially agreed to disagree on this, and he called today to let us know that he was going to move forward with lifting further restrictions,” Bottoms told MSNBC host Rachel Maddow.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot of Chicago was elected in 2019 following a career as a lawyer. She served as president of the Chicago Police Board and chair of the Chicago Police Accountability Task Force.

Unlike Mayor Bottoms, she does not have a governor working at cross-purposes with her and her city. However, Lightfoot is grappling with many young people being non-compliant with the shelter-in-place orders her city is aggressively enforcing in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19 in its neighborhoods; black neighborhoods, in particular.

Last weekend Chicago police broke up multiple large gatherings including a house party with 150 guests. Lightfoot is threatening citations and potential jail time to residents failing to comply with the stay-at-home order as house parties continue to be held across the city.

“We all need to be thinking about the long game, and having these parties when we need people to continue to stay at home is just silly. What’s it going to mean? It’s going to mean we are never getting out of this,” Lightfoot told the Chicago Tribune. “Your actions are going to make a difference between whether or not we get out sooner or later, whether or not we have a summer or we do not. It’s absolutely essential that we stay the course and people stay home.”

As the nation’s third largest city’s first black woman and first openly gay mayor, she has had to struggle with the virus’ disproportionate impact on the black community. And her frustration with the lack of seriousness by so many residents was showing last week.

“The time for educating people into compliance is over. Don’t be stupid. Don’t come out. Don’t advertise on social media,” Lightfoot said. “We’re watching you, and we are going to take decisive action.”

USA Today noted that more than half of the Windy City’s coronavirus patients and about 70 percent of COVID-19 deaths were among African Americans, even though black Chicagoans make up just 30 percent of the city’s population. At the onset, the city didn’t have information about the race or ethnicity accounting for a quarter of all cases. Lightfoot said that’s among her biggest regrets.

Dr. Henry Louis Taylor, a professor of Urban and Regional Planning and the director of the Center for Urban Studies at the University of Buffalo, said we should not give these mayors a pass or holding them partly responsible for the catastrophic impact the pandemic has had on the black communities in their cities.

Given these African American mayors’ knowledge of their black communities and its social demographics they should have been better prepared for the deadly pandemic regardless of what the federal or state leaders did, Taylor said. “Many of these mayors knew the pandemic was heading our way and that the black community was always going to be the most vulnerable segment of the population. That knowledge has been elevated to proverb in the black community: ‘When white people get a cold, we get pneumonia.’”

“So, the failure to properly plan and coordinate a local response by using local resources from colleges and public health experts to mitigate its impact was inexcusable,” he said.

New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell was elected mayor in 2018 after serving on City Council. She also held the position of president of the Broadmoor Improvement Association, which led the neighborhood’s redevelopment following Hurricane Katrina.

Like Georgia, Louisiana is easing restrictions but Cantrell has a more collaborative relationship with Gov. John Bel Edwards and she has emphasized their stay-at-home order is still in place.

Orleans Parish has almost 6,500 cases and more than 430 deaths caused by COVID-19.

According to news reports the city has outlined its phases for reopening. Cantrell said in a statement it will be done “gradually, intentionally, and based on data that weighs potential benefits against the threat to our community, especially our most vulnerable residents.”

“Protecting public health and safety will continue to drive the City of New Orleans’ response to COVID-19. With sustained low case numbers, ramped up testing, and other key milestones, the city may begin to ease restrictions in phases,” she said.

While expressing sympathy for the position these mayors find themselves in, efforts must be made beyond identifying the obvious such as recognizing the gross racial disparities, said Dr. Taylor.

“In a crisis such as this African Americans should expect more from their black mayors – male or female,” he said. “It’s not enough to talk about the disparities if you are not creating special programs targeting these problems and are not using your powers to create mechanisms to monitor and protect those communities.”

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