DETROIT — Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms captured the nation's attention when she addressed the civil unrest occurring in her city after George Floyd’s death.
“I am a mother to four black children in America, one of whom is 18 years old,” Bottoms said Friday in a rousing speech. “When I saw the murder of George Floyd, I hurt like a mother.”
Bottoms and other black female mayors, including Lori Lightfoot of Chicago, are leading some of the nation's largest cities during an unprecedented moment of challenge as protests against police brutality overlap with the coronavirus pandemic and an economic collapse. They're being praised as thoughtful leaders at a time of political tumult and high-profile examples of black women seeking and winning political office across the country.
Higher Heights for America PAC, a political action committee dedicated to electing more progressive black women, said there are seven black women serving as mayors in the nation’s 100 most populous U.S. cities, compared to just one in 2014.
“Black women have always been leading and we have been the defenders of our homes, our communities and our nation,” said Glynda Carr, the president and CEO of Higher Heights. “Our leadership was built for this moment and their unique experiences as black women, not only as Americans, has provided the type of trusted leadership that can help move this country forward."
The mayors have demonstrated leadership with personal connections. Lightfoot, Chicago's first black female mayor and first openly gay leader, frankly acknowledged America’s dark history of racism and blasted President Donald Trump’s divisive tweets in which he called protesters “thugs” and said “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.”
“It’s impossible for me as a black woman who has been the target of blatant racism over the course of my life not to take the killing of George Floyd personally,” Lightfoot said. “Being black in America should not be a death sentence.”
The question is whether this moment will translate into a long-lasting higher profile for the mayors.
Bottoms, for example, was already believed to be under consideration as Joe Biden's running mate before the protests. Her stature has only risen amid the unrest.
Beyond her well-received remarks Friday, she acted swiftly two days later, firing two police officers and placing three others on desk duty over excessive use of force during a protest arrest involving two college students.
“Use of excessive force is never acceptable,” Bottoms told reporters.
Nadia Brown, a political science professor at Purdue University, said her research has found that many black female leaders, especially within their own communities, are seen as relatable figures — something that has worked in their favor at this time.
During the pandemic, residents made viral memes of Lightfoot enforcing her stay-at-home orders. Instead of chiding them, Lightfoot embraced the moment and used it to connect with residents, Brown said.
“I think that we’re seeing some of this play out in real time,” Brown said. “She was speaking in that role of telling residents what to do from an authority figure that seemed very familiar. And I think that’s kind of a mode in which we’re seeing some other black women elected officials deal with unrest in that they're speaking to constituents not just as an authority figure but one that is familiar."
Rochester, New York, Mayor Lovely Warren, who is in her second term as the first black female mayor of the state's third-largest city, said that while black women have made strides in gaining prominence, they still face unique challenges of racism and stereotypes.
“We’re trying to fight a system that was institutionally built to create the disparities that it has created over generations and so we’re trying to undo the damage that has been done to prepare our children for the future," Warren said. “A lot of times we get branded with the ‘angry black woman syndrome' when we’re speaking up to a number of different issues that impact our community, but we have been built to take on the responsibility and we take it in stride."
“No matter which mayor I look at across this country right now, they have done an extraordinary job trying to balance all that's coming toward them,” Warren added.
Other black mayors including San Francisco's London Breed and Muriel Bowser of Washington have also been recognized for their measured responses and handling of their communities.
A'shanti Gholar, president of Emerge America, an organization that recruits and trains Democratic women to run for office, said many of the black women in office today were entrenched in grassroots political work for decades, paving the way for those to come behind them.
“This is about a movement, a movement of women extending and taking their leadership all over across the country,” Gholar said. “Black women running for office and winning, it isn't an anomaly. They're also building up the next generation of black women elected officials and black women mayors who they're inspiring to run."
Although gains have been made, Carr said there’s still much more work to be done. Biden has pledged to pick a woman as a running mate and is considering several women of color.
No black woman has ever served as governor in the country. Carr noted that black women make up 7.6% of the country's population yet account for just 4.3% of all members of the House and 1% of the Senate.
“All that we celebrate about the gains we made 51 years after Shirley Chisholm became the first black woman to serve in Congress, we also recognize that the 23 million black women in this country are so underrepresented and underserved,” Carr said. “So, we need to continue to invest in recruiting, training and supporting black woman.”