The Root Cities: Oakland's Political Power

Oakland, Calif., used to be known as a black city; its political leaders reflected that reality. But shifting demographics are changing the city's complexion. In the first of a series, The Root takes a look at who's really got the power in rapidly gentrifying Oaktown. Will Ron Dellums be its last black mayor?


The story of the Serenader bar is a metaphor for what's happening in Oakland, Calif.

For 30 years, it was tucked between a fast-food place and a Chinese restaurant in central Oakland. It was known for its strong drinks, blues and R&B bands, and a clientele of gents in colorful suits and ladies in dresses and lots of hair. "Oakland old school, hella cool," in the words of one former patron.

After the bar closed last year, it reopened as the Heart and Dagger, a rocker-biker alternative bar. The jukebox blasts indie rock from the '90s, the bartenders are tattooed, and the crowd is young and diverse, leaning toward white -- hipsters.

Oakland, once considered a black city, is undergoing dramatic changes, some of them evident in the race for the city's next mayor.

At its peak in the 1980s, African Americans made up 47 percent of the population. The city elected a series of black mayors. At one time, most of the city's departments were headed by African Americans, and the City Council had a black majority.

Times have changed, starting with the demographics. According to the U.S. Census American Community Survey, African Americans now make up 29 percent of the city's population. Between 2000 and 2007, 34,000 African Americans left the city, the biggest black exodus in Oakland's history.

After the 1977 election of Lionel Wilson, Oakland's first black mayor, black mayors ran the city for 24 of the next 32 years (former California governor Jerry Brown held the seat for two terms). The current mayor, Ron Dellums, is not running for a second term this November,and none of the top candidates is African American.

The City Council no longer has a black majority -- two of the eight members are black. The city manager, a position held by an African American for 12 years, is not black. The superintendent of schools, another position once held by a black woman, is not black. Breaking the recent pattern, the chief of police is African American.

It would seem that Oakland's days as a predominantly black city, with the attendant influence on politics, have come to an end.

"It's an interesting time," said Greg Hodge, a political activist who served on the school board and ran for city council. He said he's seeing signs of gentrification in his neighborhood, West Oakland, the heart and soul of Oakland's black community. "The longtimers are shellshocked, trying to hold on."