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The paradox of black Chicago African-American politicians benefited from segregation

Two men on a street in the South Side, 1974 (Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images).

Two men on a street in the South Side, 1974 (Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images).


December 17, 2021   6 mins

Earlier this year, the Mayor of Chicago Lori Lightfoot declared racism to be a public health crisis. Her announcement followed a comprehensive report by the Chicago Department of Public Health, which contained a litany of grim statistics: Black children born in Chicago are three times more likely to die in the first year of life than other infants in the city; half of Chicago’s HIV-positive residents are black, in spite of African Americans making up just 30% of the population; African American Chicagoans are nine times more likely to be murdered and can expect to live nine years less than average; in Englewood on the South Side, where 95% of residents are Black, life expectancy is just 60-years-old, lower than in Afghanistan.

Unsurprisingly, Lightfoot’s consequent identification of “systemic racism” as the cause of these disparities provoked derision among her critics. The city, after all, is governed by a black mayor with an almost entirely Democratic city council, where the majority of aldermen are black or Hispanic. At the state and federal level, Chicago is represented by a group of multi-racial, left-of-centre politicians. The city even has the longest, unbroken tradition of black political representation of anywhere in the United States.

This paradox is at the heart of the city’s problems with race, and demonstrates the limitations of a political agenda focused primarily on descriptive representation. Chicago has long had “black faces in high places”, but too often this did not translate into substantive change. Indeed, the health disparities identified in the CDPH report are the consequence of a complicated political history, which reveals not just the dilemma of black electoral politics in one city but the problem of using the city as the vehicle for social reform.

As Barack Obama — whose foundation boasts of his “deep Windy City roots” — once described, Chicago is regarded by many as “the capital of the African American community in the country”. Founded by an African-Caribbean explorer in the eighteenth century, black people have lived in the Chicago area longer than any group except for Native Americans. Their long history of residence and spatial concentration, due to residential segregation, made Chicago the epicentre of black political life in the United States. Given this backdrop, the historian Timuel Black insisted, the first African American president could only have come from Chicago.

It was, as the authors of the classic 1945 work Black Metropolis describe, the “city of refuge” for African Americans; first, as the terminus of a line on the Underground Railroad and, later, as the place of settlement for hundreds of thousands fleeing the tyranny of the Jim Crow South during the Great Migration in the first half of the twentieth century.

But while life in Chicago was perceived as a better alternative to life in the South, formal and informal restrictions on black employment and housing, as well as racially motivated violence, ensured that African Americans operated separately and unequally from the city’s white population. When Martin Luther King came to protest the city’s residential racial segregation in 1966, he commented: “I have never seen, even in Mississippi and Alabama, mobs as hateful as I’ve seen here in Chicago.”

And yet it was precisely this racial segregation that provided African Americans with electoral power. Their size and spatial concentration within the city due to severe racial segregation created powerful blocs of African American voters, who were the plurality in numerous city, state, and even federal districts. The First Congressional District (IL:01), anchored in the South Side, elected the first northern black member of Congress in 1928. It has been represented by African Americans ever since. Barack Obama, incidentally, unsuccessfully sought election to this seat in 2000; former Black Panther, Bobby Rush who defeated Barack Obama — the only candidate ever to do so — still represents the First District.

For decades, however, black politics in Chicago was dominated by white-led political machines. These were informal political organisations, usually dominated by a charismatic leader, engaged in patronage in exchange for votes.

The most notorious was the machine of Richard Daley, known euphemistically as the ‘Organization’. Daley père et fils governed Chicago for 43 of the years between 1955 to 2011. At his height, it was said that the elder Mayor Daley could appoint 45,000 patronage positions — roughly ten times the number appointed by the President of the United States. Daley’s primary constituency was the city’s Irish-American population, and he did little to alleviate the conditions of the city’s African American population.

In these years, many black leaders were complicit with the Organization, albeit always as junior members. During the elder Daley’s mayoralty, the six black aldermen on Chicago City Council were so total in their loyalty and quiet in their criticism that they were known as the ‘Silent Six’. They operated what became known as the black ‘sub-machine’, whereby the Organization devolved some degree of patronage power to black leadership in exchange for their loyalty. Such was Daley’s control of the city’s black leadership that the entertainer Dick Gregory once remarked: “You have to respect Daley. He has a big job being mayor, governor, prosecutor, and president of the Chicago Branch of the NAACP.”

In response to the machine’s malevolence, from the Sixties, reformist black leaders stood as candidates independent from the Organization. The Black independent movement came out of the civil rights imperative, and the heart of the movement was in Chicago’s multi-racial enclave of Hyde Park on the South Side.

One of its leading figures was Richard Newhouse, who was elected to the Illinois State Senate in 1967. Over the next quarter century, Newhouse operated independently of the machine, often threatening to abstain on key votes in the closely divided state senate until the machine conceded to his demands. Through this strategy, he was able to secure the passage of the Illinois Fair Housing Practices Act. In 1975, when Richard J Daley ran for a sixth term as mayor, Newhouse stood against him, making him the first African American candidate for mayor of Chicago.

Don Rose, who was active in Hyde Park politics during Newhouse’s tenure, remembers that in the 1960s and 1970s Newhouse ‘was often cited as [one day] our first black president’. Newhouse never achieved this accolade, but his state senate district did produce the first black president. In 1995, four years after Newhouse’s retirement, Barack Obama declared his intention to fill the seat. At his announcement event, the outgoing incumbent gushed: “Barack Obama carries on the tradition of independence in this district, a tradition that continued with me and most recently with Senator Newhouse.”

In the state legislature, Obama pushed for a reformist policy agenda while largely resisting the patronage of City Hall. He even asked his wife Michelle to quit her job in the Daley administration as he was preparing to run for the state senate. Michelle’s family had been supporters of the Organization, and her late father had been a precinct captain for the Daley machine in the 5th Ward.

Obama, however, understood the importance of maintaining good terms with black machine ‘regulars’, such as the State Senate President Emil Jones. He was willing to work with the machine, who provided him with favours in return, not least the freedom to redraw his legislative district boundaries after the 2000 Census in his favour. Obama was a reformer but a tactical one.

In 1969, the Northwestern University political scientist Paul Friesema predicted that in the coming years, African Americans would win more mayoralties across the United States. Cities, which had once been overwhelmingly white, were becoming more diverse, and in some places African Americans could command a plurality of the vote. Friesema warned, however, that black political power at the city level would constitute a “hollow prize”.

Part of the reason why African Americans were becoming more numerically dominant was due to the departure of white, middle-class residents to the suburbs. As whites moved out, they took their wealth with them, and city property values declined. Local government is dependent on property tax for its funding: the fewer high value properties, the less revenue to spend on the city’s social priorities. It is a constant dilemma of urban politics. With tight borders and relative ease of transport in and out of the city, it is easy for a high wealth resident to relocate to a lower-tax jurisdiction yet still enjoy the benefits of proximity to the city. Zoning laws are then used to ensure that only high value properties can be built in these localities.

As Friesema predicted, in the Eighties, Chicago elected its first black mayor, Harold Washington, who emerged from the Black independent movement around Hyde Park. Washington attempted to pursue policies which would benefit the city’s African American population, such as creating job centres in the South and West Sides. He even met a young community organiser named Barack Obama at one of them in 1987, shortly before his sudden death. Yet, for all of Washington’s charisma, courage, and vision, his efforts were stymied by an uncooperative council and constant lack of resources, as the Reagan administration asked cities to take on more responsibilities with less funding.

Mayor Lightfoot’s public health declaration, on the other hand, was unusual in that she was able to accompany it with substantive resources, but this was entirely a product of one-off $1.2 billion Covid-19 relief allocated to the city by the federal government. The vast majority of this money had to be used to plug operational funding gaps, including, controversially, $280 million to the Chicago Police Department.

To tackle the public health emergency of racism, Lightfoot announced $9.6 million to be allocated to the establishment of six Equity Zones across the city which are meant to “create community-based stakeholder coalitions to develop targeted strategies to improve community and individual wellness”. These may be warm words, but unless accompanied by wider reform and much greater resources, it is hard to see how such initiatives can be any more than a sticking plaster.

Black politics in Chicago, as in the rest of the United States, is not a monolith. Black nationalists, socialists, and reform-minded liberals contended with transactional black leaders, who too often accepted the status quo in exchange for political status.

Yet, even after more radical black leadership gained control of the city, change has been difficult to achieve due to the limited resources available to city governments. As Chicago has learnt, victory in municipal government is too often a hollow prize.


Richard Johnson is a Lecturer in US Politics and Policy at Queen Mary University of London.

richardmarcj

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George Glashan
GG
George Glashan
2 years ago

very informative article, theres one thing though

“Unsurprisingly, Lightfoot’s consequent identification of “systemic racism” as the cause of these disparities provoked derision among her critics. The city, after all, is governed by a black mayor with an almost entirely Democratic city council, where the majority of aldermen are black or Hispanic. At the state and federal level, Chicago is represented by a group of multi-racial, left-of-centre politicians. The city even has the longest, unbroken tradition of black political representation of anywhere in the United States.”

Lightfoot’s just accidentally saying the quiet part out loud, stupidly thinking what she said was an insult to her opponents rather than just an honest appraisal of her own side. All of these Democrat / Left led organisations are plausibly (definitely?) racist. At the least they discriminate based on race (to their minds this is acceptable because they target the correct oppressor races) and by the Democrats own Critical Race Theory “logic” the Democrat policy’s harm black people so they are de facto racists, obviously they don’t actually apply their own logic to themselves, as Lightfoot accusation highlights, when the Democrats harm black people the nebulous and conveniently unaccountable system is responsible for it, even when that system is comprised of black Democrats.

Last edited 2 years ago by George Glashan
Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
2 years ago
Reply to  George Glashan

Black conservatives like Thomas Sowell and Clarence Thomas would certainly agree that the policies pursued by.progressives harm blacks.
Democrats want blacks to be beholden. They want to be the Patronus to the black cliens. The system that worked well for the classical Roman Senators.

Chris Wheatley
CW
Chris Wheatley
2 years ago

Many (black) commentators have said that the problems with black people in America cannot be resolved by white people, that racism persists in a more virulent form when white people suggest giving things to black people to try and even things up.
Trump-supporter Candace Owens has said clearly in her book and tv programme that the problems suffered by black people can only be solved by black people, by working harder towards a solution instead of waiting for handouts from Congress. To me this is obvious but I am obviously not wise enough.
On a more trivial basis, in UK football Wilfred Zaha refuses to ‘take the knee’ because it is demeaning for black people and I agree.

James Joyce
James Joyce
2 years ago

Utter academic tosh! Many questionable facts presented.
Chicago is a massively failed city in a failed state–Democratically controlled for decades if not longer. The filthy, vile, disgusting mayor is merely a poverty pimp, using her position to gain “reparations” for blacks, which is how many view the crime wave in Chicago and many other cities. The raison detre for many politicians–white and black–but certainly LL–is to take from whites and give to blacks.
No wonder bi-racial Obama supposedly came from Chicago, despite his Hawaiian and Indonesian upbringing. Funny how some are bi-racial, but Barrack Hussein Obama was “black” and African-American, and also a Christian. What a scam!

David Nebeský
DN
David Nebeský
2 years ago

I still don’t get it. How did the local policies described in the article cause the spread of HIV among blacks?

George Glashan
GG
George Glashan
2 years ago
Reply to  David Nebeský

Racism. The answer is always and only racism. if you cant see how that’s because you haven’t looked hard enough for it. It’s not up to them to do the work of explaining how either, even asking for an explanation is in itself racist. If you don’t accept it, unquestionably, then that is also racist.
To paraphrase the old woman, it’s turtles racism all the way down.

Last edited 2 years ago by George Glashan
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
2 years ago

“The city, after all, is governed by a black mayor with an almost entirely Democratic city council, where the majority of aldermen are black or Hispanic”.
Yet only 30% of the population is black. How is this possible?

Jeremy Bray
JB
Jeremy Bray
2 years ago

Presumably because a lot of white people aren’t racist but are happy to support stupid policies. If all the whites were racist they would vote out the black politicians whatever policies they introduced.

Tama Filpi
Tama Filpi
2 years ago

Chicago is approximately 1/3 black, 1/3 Hispanic, and 1/3 white, so very possible. Also, the current mayor was elected as an outsider and a reformer, and had support from a multi-ethnic coalition.
I think this article is a good synopsis of black political power in Chicago, and how representation has not necessarily translated to reform. But Chicago is NOT an easy city to govern — lots of turf wars, politically. Lori Lightfoot would have had a tough time regardless, but with COVID and increased crime, she’s simply in way over her head, in my opinion.

William Hickey
WH
William Hickey
2 years ago
Reply to  Tama Filpi

The current mayor of Chicago was allowed to be elected — no one of any status in the Democratic Party ran to succeed Rahm Emanuel in that high-profile position, and Lightfoot’s black female opponent was as undistinguished as she was.

The reason was because Chicago’s financial house of cards was about to come a-cropper after years of horrible municipal policies, graft, over-promising and profligacy. Chicago’s elders figured who better to be the fall guy than a black lesbian of no ability, unconnected to the old regime. They would just get out of the way and pretend to be bystanders.

A booming economy and then a lot of Covid-panic borrowed money flushed to the cities and states has helped stave off disaster temporarily. Lightfoot’s stewardship of public safety, however, cannot be hidden, so that’s the incompetence people see.

But once those fake dollars run out, look out!

Last edited 2 years ago by William Hickey
Samir Iker
SI
Samir Iker
2 years ago

Because black people are racists who will vote for black candidates from the party they consider to be black.

While White people are not racist and vote across parties

Similar for muslims / blacks and Labour, if not for their block votes Labour would be in far worse state

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
ER
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
2 years ago
Reply to  Samir Iker

So you mean that in any city in the UK which has a large ethnic population both political parties have to put up an ethnic candidate in order to stand a chance but it is OK for the parties to parachute ethnic candidates into white constituencies safe in the knowledge that the candidates ethnicity will not count against them.
Glad you cleared this up

Samir Iker
SI
Samir Iker
2 years ago

Where did you thing Rishi Sunak has a greater chance of being elected – a working class white region full of supposed “racists” or a constituency full of muslims and blacks.

I am Indian origin. In a country that’s 85% white, I have faced or heard of zero racism towards Indians from whites, and multiple incidents from blacks / muslims

Warren T
Warren T
2 years ago

The reason is that Chicago is about 85% democrat. It’s all part of a machine, like the author mentions. The white business leaders, and the black political leaders all feed in the same trough.
It’s interesting that the author didn’t mention the abysmal murder rate in Chicago for blacks, which are virtually all committed by other blacks. That is the main reason for the low life expectancy in those neighborhoods. Chicago has been the distribution hub for heroine in the U.S. for a while now. But no one talks about it.

Chris Mochan
CH
Chris Mochan
2 years ago

“create community-based stakeholder coalitions to develop targeted strategies to improve community and individual wellness”. These may be warm words,

I wouldn’t say warm words. More like meaningless words disguised as ‘doing something’.

Cathy Carron
Cathy Carron
2 years ago

Chicago’s financial problems stem from the excessive burden of its pension fund – the second highest in the nation (CT is #1). Illinois politicians have been kicking this can down the road for decades not tackling it head on. Until this ball & chain of a financial burden is addressed Chicago is going nowhere.

William Hickey
William Hickey
2 years ago
Reply to  Cathy Carron

It won’t be addressed. The pension fund will go bankrupt and Chicago will go on its hands and knees to Washington for a bailout.

Lightfoot was allowed to become the mayor to take that fall.

Better that nobody who at least has a lot of diversity Pokémon points than those who were actually responsible.

Warren T
Warren T
2 years ago

As someone who grew up on the streets of Brooklyn, NY and a Chicago area resident for 20 years, I’ve seen social project after project built for inner city poor folks, who were predominately black. In each and every case, the housing development, along with all the tangential projects, like parks and special enterprise zones, have been abandoned due to the residents destroying them. Over and over again. The cycle never ends.

chris sullivan
CS
chris sullivan
2 years ago
Reply to  Warren T

Always seems to be the case if an individual demands ‘help’ from outside rather than ‘internally’ ie self help is what gets things done vs handouts. Humans have a strong tendency towards passivity’ laziness’ and violence – why are these factors not accepted ??? Once the R word is used as a cop out all is doomed – so obvious, so stuck – is it any wonder that people who can just move out because there is no other option because nothing meaningful CAN happen in this climate.!

William Hickey
WH
William Hickey
2 years ago
Reply to  Warren T

Correct. That is the huge missing question and subsequent knee jerk assumption of this guy’s article.

When blacks moved into solid old Chicago neighborhoods and took them over as the whites fled (for some reason), why didn’t the property values increase?

Why didn’t the new black neighborhoods become magnets for commerce, drawing in people from the surrounding areas to partake and enjoy the new restaurants and attractions of the rejuvenated stores and public spaces?

Why didn’t white families try to get their kids enrolled in the new majority black schools that were fast becoming educational vanguards?

Why didn’t movie theaters and other retail businesses expand into the inner-cities to exploit the new clientele there?

And why instead is it immediately and tacitly assumed that when blacks move in, neighborhoods deteriorate and need “white money” to survive? — not prosper, survive.

You know, you know…

D Hockley
D Hockley
2 years ago

If you want to see real mortality rates, education levels and general living conditions of black populations that live without white intervention, go and look at Africa.
 
when you have the data, come back to me and let’s talk.

William Hickey
William Hickey
2 years ago
Reply to  D Hockley

Love those “informal settlements.”

Chris Eaton
Chris Eaton
2 years ago

There is no paradox. Black people have, by and large, shown a complete inability to govern themselves. Pick a city, county, or country. If it is run by blacks it is in complete disarray. But, you know, when you have a population that is educated by these black run systems there will never be any real change. That’s why white people don’t live in urban areas….until they have been completely gentrified.

Christopher Barclay
CB
Christopher Barclay
2 years ago

There is nothing inevitable about house prices falling. You just need to make the people living in inner city neighbourhoods high earners. That starts with education.