The Root Cities: Oakland's Political Power


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."


In meetings of neighborhood governing boards and planning groups for the restoration of a historic train station in West Oakland, he sees tension between the newcomers and longtime residents: "You hear how the new people think about West Oakland. Sometimes they treat the existing residents like they don't know what they're doing. They don't have respect for what people have been doing." In his view, those tensions are a microcosm of what's happening across the city. "No one is trying to lead and bring these voices and forces together," he says. "The longer it goes, the harder it will be to bridge these differences. We need a candid conversation."

In fact, an attempt to hold on to black political power was a major motivation for the grass-roots effort that drafted Dellums to run for mayor in 2006. Before he entered the race, a longtime Latino city council member, Ignacio De La Fuente, was considered a shoo-in. Dellums, beloved for his progressive record in Congress, carried the black vote and attracted a multiracial coalition of supporters. The desire to maintain black political power may have been a motivation for some supporters, but to some political observers, the idea seemed a little dated and not reflective of the city's diverse makeup.


"Some people are saying Dellums will be Oakland's last black mayor," says Hodge, who pulled out of the mayor's race in deference to Dellums. "If I'd been elected, I would have been a mayor who happens to be black. I would have served the needs of the city."

As it turned out, Dellums disappointed many of his supporters. He seemed detached and largely absent, with a few exceptions — he secured federal stimulus money for the city and hired the highly regarded chief of police.


The top three mayoral candidates are Don Perata, a former state senator, who is white; Jean Quan, a City Council member, who is Asian American; and Rebecca Kaplan, the first openly gay City Council member, who is white. Some people theorize that whoever is elected will focus on "their" community.

However, there hasn't been much discussion about whether the years of black political dominance actually served the city's black communities. Black people clearly gained ground in securing city jobs, and black firms won city contracts. On the other hand, black neighborhoods, particularly in the poorer sections of town, were allowed to deteriorate. Violent crime is an ongoing problem, the schools are inadequate, and residents still don't have basic services such as grocery stores and banks.


Ironically, Hodge said, some Oaklanders, including some African Americans, will support Perata because he is white, believing a white man will get the job done.

Whoever wins in November will face some serious challenges, including crime and a budget crisis, as well as a changed political landscape that is no longer anchored by a black establishment.


A version of this article originally appeared in The OakBook.

Brenda Payton is a journalist who lives in the San Francisco Bay area. 

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