Black Urban Regime

Black urban regime refers to large, majority or near majority black cities in the United States governed by black mayors. The first examples of a black urban regime were Carl Stokes’s and Richard Hatcher’s election in Cleveland and Gary, respectively, in the late 1960s. The majority of black urban regimes arose in the 1970s and later. In the late 1980s, 13 US cities were defined as black urban regimes, while in 2001 the number had risen to 19 (Bositis 2002: 11, 26; Reed 1999: 254).

Black urban regime theory addresses the origins, structural constraints, and sociopolitical conflicts faced by black urban regimes. Three key questions guide research on the black urban regime: Why does the regime leadership pursue policies that hurt the material interests of its predominantly black poor and working class electoral base? How does the regime gain the consent of the black community to a pro corporate development model? How would a progressive, pro working class regime arise in the context of a majority black city?

Analyzing the historical origins of black urban regimes is important for understanding the pro corporate character they have taken. Although many post war US cities faced employment losses due to deindustrialization, exodus of affluent, mostly white, residents, and a decimated tax base, majority black cities tend to be the hardest hit by these trends (Horan 2002: 28). In fact, these negative trends are what, in many ways, allow for the ascension of a predominantly black political leadership at the municipal level. Furthermore, by the late 1970s, as several black mayors were coming to power, the federal government began to drastically reduce funding to cities. Thus, there were – and are – strong structural factors that encourage black urban political leaders to pursue a business oriented ‘‘pro growth’’ development model. A pro corporate urban economic development model appears as the only viable strategy to lure investment and jobs back to cities.

Although the structural constraints are important, they are not sufficient to explain the pro corporate character of the black political leadership. Reed (1988) points to the social origins of the black political class to explain the regressive development model they support. Black political leaders – even those with a civil rights background – have tended to come from a professional managerial stratum. Furthermore, many were groomed for political office in federal government and private foundation funded poverty programs (Reed 1999: 88–9). Thus, their class background, past political formation, and attendant ideological worldview predisposed them to a pro business agenda.

Further solidifying black middle class support for the pro corporate model are the material benefits that accrue. The opening of high level positions in the public sector, and the awarding of public contracts to African Americans that had previously been limited to whites, has tended to benefit the black middle class. Thus, similar to urban regime theory as developed by Stone (1989), black urban regime theory identifies a dominant governing coalition, composed of a black led public sector and a white dominated corporate sector. This alliance represents the power structure in majority black cities. Its members cooperate to carry out urban economic regeneration projects.

The governing elite alliance is not without conflict. A major point of contention has been over affirmative action programs in the awarding of contracts. Nonetheless, there tends to be agreement on the overall pro corporate orientation of the regime.

The focus of urban regime theory is to analyze the process of cooperation and conflict between the public and private sector segments of the governing elite. To examine the content of this relationship the major, pro growth corporate organization is normally studied. For example, in his classic urban regime theory informed study Stone (1989) analyzed the Central Atlanta Progress (CAP), which was that southern city’s most powerful corporate planning organization. In contrast to this research agenda, a distinguishing feature of black urban regime theory informed studies is their focus on the impact of the pro corporate agenda on black working class communities and how regime elites legitimate inequality. For example, Oden (1999) found that Oakland’s black urban regime delivered only symbolic, rather than substantive, redistributive benefits to poor and black working class communities. Reed (1987) pointed to the discursive powers of black mayors – in this case, Atlanta’s Maynard Jackson – as key to obfuscating the material, class based distributive stakes embedded in the pro growth agenda.

There are several theoretical, methodological, and political issues that must be addressed to extend and develop this research agenda. Theoretically, future studies need to draw connections between the meso, or middle range, level that black urban regime theory operates within and the macro, extra local level changes and forces. Lauria (1997) recommends employing regulation theory as one way to make the macro–micro connection. Methodologically, researchers must refine their data gathering techniques to highlight the key unit of analysis of black urban regime theory informed studies – the class relationship between the governing elite and the overwhelming black working class popular base of the regime. To obtain rich data, researchers must develop meaningful relationships of trust with black working class communities.

The methodological challenges are tied to implementing the political agenda of black urban regime theory. Like all theories, black urban regime theory has a normative or political component. The political goal is to use theory and research to strengthen the capacity of working class communities to challenge the regressive pro corporate agenda of the governing elite. Researchers face three challenges to realizing this normative agenda. The first is to allow black working class communities to define issues that need to be studied. The second is to include workers as participants in research. The third is to develop ways for workers to draw on research findings to improve the political practice of the working class movement. Arena (2006, forthcoming) has drawn from the political action research model to articulate and implement the embedded political goals of black urban regime theory.


  1. Arena, J. (2006) Repression, Racism and Resistance: The New Orleans Black Urban Regime and a Challenge to Racist Neoliberalism. In: Coates, R. (Ed.), Race and Ethnicity: Across Time, Space and Discipline. Brill, Lydon, forthcoming.
  2. Bositis, D. A. (2002) Latest Report of Black Elected Officials: A Statistical Summary. Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, Washington, DC.
  3. Horan, C. (2002) Racializing Regime Politics. Journal of Urban Affairs 24(1): 19-33.
  4. Lauria, M. (1997) Reconstructing Urban Regime Theory. Sage, London.
  5. Oden, R. S. (1999) Power Shift: A Sociological Study of the Political Incorporation of People of Color in Oakland, California, 1966-1996. University of California, Santa Cruz.
  6. Reed, A. (1987) A Critique of Neo-Progressivism in Theorizing about Local Development Policy: A Case from Atlanta. In: Stone, C. N. & Sanders, H. T. (Eds.), The Politics of Urban Development. University of Kansas Press, Lawrence.
  7. Reed, A. (1988) The Black Urban Regime: Structural Origins and Constraints. In: Smith, M. P. (Ed.), Power, Community, and the City. Transaction Press, New Brunswick, NJ.
  8. Reed, A. (1999) Stirrings in the Jug: Black Politics in the Post Segregation Era. University of Minnesota Press, London.
  9. Smith, M. P. (2001) Transnational Urbanism: Locating Globalization. Blackwell, Oxford.
  10. Stone, C. (1989) Regime Politics: Governing Atlanta, 1946 1988. University Press of Kansas, Lawrence.

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