Whose town is it?

Carl Redus’ failed effort to delay the coming election for mayor has added to the conviction held by many Pine Bluffians of all races that our local politics is due for an overdue correction in the form of his removal from office. But in my view, our civic problems run far deeper.

Whenever I attend the candidates forums, I am always struck by how often they profess their love for our city and county. I admire that. However, almost none of them ever acknowledges the fact that our area is experiencing a tug-of-war regarding who actually controls our local governments and our city. And as quiet as it’s kept (and at times, not so quietly kept) the centerpiece of that struggle is race.

If not dealt with forthrightly, this struggle itself will dictate the future economic viability of our city and county much more than which specific individuals become mayor, aldermen/women, sheriff, county judge, and the like. We must candidly acknowledge the racial nature of that struggle to assure that whoever is elected to our public offices can be successful in attracting jobs, rebuilding our tattered downtown, reducing crime and improving educational proficiency and attainment levels .

Pine Bluff is not alone in having to deal with this race-linked struggle in governance. Since the pace of political empowerment among African Americans was quicker in urban areas of the east, midwest and west than in the south, that is where the struggle first began. More than four decades ago, both white suburban flight and increased black voter participation led to the election of black mayors, city councilmen and other officials in many non-southern cities with relatively large black populations, such as Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Gary, Newark, Washington, D.C., and southern cities such as Atlanta , Houston and New Orleans.

The subsequent and current economic viability of those cities was influenced by many macro-economic forces beyond their control (e.g., erosion of our country’s manufacturing base, outsourcing, etc). But a lot depended on how well they handled the racial competition among politicians to control their city governments.

I arrived in Chicago in the mid-1980s in the midst of that city’s struggle to come to grips with the election of larger numbers of black and Latino aldermen, and of the city’s first black mayor, Harold Washington. Many white politicians who represented the city’s diverse white ethnic communities (and thereby the whole of the city government) appeared resentful of the new-found electoral successes of blacks and Latinos, the latter of whom allied with African Americans to elect Mayor Washington. Black and Latino politicians appeared frustrated by the fact that despite their electoral successes, the economic power of the area still rested in the hands of whites. This set the stage for a prolonged series of “council wars.”

In those cities where business leaders and citizens themselves put pressure on politicians to end the unnecessary racial strife though compromise and a greater willingness to share the control over government and the city itself, there was a reduction in population losses and a move toward more economic revitalization despite broader macro-economic trends. In cities where the strife remained unabated for too long, they shrunk in size or took much longer to revitalize. The choice is ours, fellow residents of Pine Bluff and Jefferson County. This beautiful piece of Delta-meets-woodlands turf belongs to all of us, and it has already been hallowed by a Trail of Tears, a hideous slavery regime, and a bloody Civil War.

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Darnell F. Hawkins received a doctorate in sociology from the University of Michigan and a law degree from the University of North Carolina. He currently lives in Pine Bluff after retiring from the University of Illinois at Chicago where he specialized in criminal justice.