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Black vs. White in Chicago

If the South has become all but lost to the Democratic party in national elections, Chicago has become the battleground for the party’s northern soul. Just as in the South, race defines the politics of voting in contests ranging from minor state senate seats to the presidency. In Chicago, the threatened exodus of white voters from the Democratic party has not been led, as it has in the South, by an upper-middle class no longer able to use the party to maintain its authority. It has been led by working-class whites, men and women who were once themselves, along with their parents, strongly committed to New Deal liberalism.

After thirteen years of political turmoil following the death of Richard J. Daley in 1976, Chicago Democratic voters decided on February 28 to give the party’s nomination of mayor to Richard M. Daley, the forty-six-year-old son of the former boss. “Richie” Daley seems an affable, if milder, version of his father, lacking not only the magnetism of the man who controlled Chicago between 1955 and 1976, but also, one suspects, his instinctive capacity to accumulate power and hold on to it. But in a city where crime, drugs, and the deterioration of public schools have become the dominant issues, the younger Daley recently put together a coalition that consistently eluded his father: an alliance, at least for the February 28 primary, between the precincts of the northwest and southwest sides—the “bungalow” neighborhoods of white working-class and lower-middle-class voters who have been showing a growing willingness to vote Republican—and the well-to-do, heavily Jewish, lakefront wards where anti-Daley reform politics have historically flourished. To this solidly white core of support, Daley has added a constituency that is emerging as the swing block in an increasing number of big-city elections, the Hispanic vote—in Chicago 7 to 8 percent of the voters.

Chicago is the city that defeated Martin Luther King, Jr. When the civil rights leader tried to bring his movement to the North in 1967 after winning battles in Birmingham, Selma, and Atlanta, he ran into a political wall. He described the white hostility that he encountered as deeper and stronger than anything he had ever seen in the South. After King led marches into the southwest side of white Chicago, marches that produced only intensified hostility to black demands, he said, “The people of Mississippi ought to come to Chicago to learn to hate.”

In the twenty-two years since King led demonstrations in Marquette Park, racial conflict has moved from the streets to the voting booths. Whatever the election, when there is a choice between a black and a white, each race chooses its own by margins exceeding ten to one. What has changed between 1967 and 1989 is that blacks are now strong competitors for real power in city-wide races.

In 1983, they won. Mayor Jane Byrne, who was elected in 1979 on a platform opposing the old Daley machine, was challenged in the 1983 Democratic primary by Richard Daley and a black congressman, Harold Washington. In the three-way race that followed, Byrne and Daley split the white vote, and Washington won the primary with just 36 percent of the vote. Washington, a vigorous and skillful politician, narrowly survived the 1983 general election and the 1987 primary and general elections, winning each with 53 percent of the vote or less. He put together a coalition based on near unanimous support from blacks, a majority among Hispanics, and enough whites to put him over the top.

Washington was never able to dent the solid front of white opposition in the row-house and bungalow neighborhoods in the western corners of the city. There, even with the support of local Democratic organization leaders, Washington got only one in twenty votes from the once loyal Democratic voters. But after his reelection in 1987, shortly before he died of a heart attack, Washington began to concentrate power over the city’s politics in the office of a Democratic mayor. He joined with Democratic party chairman George W. Dunne to produce a biracial slate—including Irish, Polish, and black candidates—for the principal Cook Country offices at stake in the 1988 election.

When Washington died suddenly on November 25, 1987, the slate survived, but the momentum behind the drive to build a stronger alliance between white and black factions of the Democratic party died with him. Within a week, the black community was bitterly divided. The white party regulars who made up half of the council formed an alliance with six black city councilmen to select a gentle, soft-spoken black alderman, Eugene Sawyer, as acting mayor. It now seems clear that Sawyer was chosen because he was the black man the white politicians at City Hall thought would be the easiest to beat in the next election. When Richard Daley challenged Sawyer for the nomination, he had with him nearly all the white politicians of the old Democratic machine. In a city that respects aggressiveness in its leaders, Sawyer proved to be a candidate with weak appeal to the reform wing of the Democratic party and many of the blacks who had formerly supported Washington.

Daley’s primary victory has, as a result, tipped the racial balance of power back in favor of whites. While whites make up just 42 percent of the city’s population, they are 49 percent of the registered voters. Blacks make up at least 42 percent of both the population and the electorate, and Hispanics have 16 percent of the population, but just 7.5 percent of the voters.

Richard Daley’s victory over Sawyer presents a direct challenge to two major forces in Chicago politics: on the left, to Jesse Jackson and his local allies, who had strongly supported Harold Washington, and who have been attempting to build a Chicago version of the Rainbow Coalition; and, on the right, to an insurgent Republican party making steady inroads among the homeowning, heavily Catholic (Irish, Polish, Ukrainian, Slovak, Italian) white wards on the northwest and southwest sides of the city. In the general election this April, these two forces—represented by a third-party candidate backed by Jesse Jackson, Alderman Timothy C. Evans, and the Republican nominee, Edward Vrdolyak—will build up each other’s strength, as each takes away votes from the Democratic center.

For Jesse Jackson, the prospect that Richard Daley will be mayor for the next two years is appalling. “Can we allow Daley to inherit Harold Washington’s term?” Jackson asks black audiences, his voice filled with disdain. Jackson pointedly recalls that Daley’s father told the Chicago police to “shoot to kill” during the 1968 Chicago riots. In deciding to abandon the Democratic nominee, Jackson runs two large risks. He may well be backing a losing candidate for mayor for the second time. And he may be damaging his standing within the national Democratic party to the point where he will lose important battles over the rules that will apply to the 1992 Democratic presidential contest.

In the politics of Illinois, the Republican party has been losing strength in such traditional downstate strongholds as Peoria and Rockville, but it has more than made up for these losses in the growing “white ring” of suburbs surrounding Chicago. Since the emergence of the civil rights movement, and particularly since the election of a black mayor, the size of this Republican ring has steadily grown outward, as housing developments have replaced farms. At the same time, Republican strength has expanded inward toward the center of the city as the loyalty of working-class and lower-middle-class white voters to the Democratic party has weakened. Now two of the state senators representing districts from northwest and southwest Chicago, Walter Dudycz and Robert Raica, are Republicans. Raica first won an election in 1986 when he handed out leaflets with a picture of Mayor Washington on the cover headlined: “Let’s wipe the smile from his face!”

The Republican candidate for mayor this April, Edward Vrdolyak, has twice tried to present himself as the militant leader of the white voters who are angry at black control of city hall, and each time so far he has lost. After Washington’s election in 1983, Vrdolyak, who was then a Democrat, emerged as the hero of those who wanted to maintain white dominance in Chicago. He led twenty-nine aldermen against Mayor Washington in what came to be called “the council wars”—the daily conflicts that dominated local television for three years, as the white “City Council 29” again and again voted to block Washington’s legislation and appointments. Vrdolyak ran for mayor as a third-party candidate in 1987 and lost. Two months later, he switched to the GOP and ran for a Cook Country clerkship, losing once again. By all accounts, Vrdolyak could not be elected mayor, but there is an outside possibility he could take enough white votes away from Daley to give Evans at least a chance to win.

Whoever wins Chicago’s mayoral election on April 4, two basic conclusions can be drawn from the recent fighting on the racial battleground there. The first is that the ability of Chicago’s black political leaders to form majority coalitions with Hispanics and whites has suffered a significant setback. This suggests that blacks in such cities as New York and Cleveland may run into similar difficulties. The second is that racial conflicts between blacks and whites in Chicago over specific policies in which economic benefits such as city jobs are at stake have been compounded by the emergence of black anti-Semitism.

A major setback to a coalition between blacks and whites in Chicago occurred when Sawyer showed himself incompetent in handling the explosive issue of anti-Semitic statements by blacks. One of Sawyer’s assistants, Steve Cokely, who held a $35,568 a year job as a community liaison officer, had, before joining Sawyer’s staff, accused Jewish doctors of injecting the AIDS virus into blacks. When his statements became known, Sawyer failed to fire him right away. His indecision—it took him six days of front-page controversy to get rid of Cokely—combined with public support for Cokely from a number of other black leaders, has probably made it impossible for a black candidate to win the 40 percent margins that Washington received in some of the well-to-do and heavily Jewish precincts on the Chicago lake-front. In a city where relations between blacks and Jews have already been strained by the statements of Louis Farrakhan and the controversy over Jesse Jackson’s relations with him, the Cokely episode severed many of the remaining connections between the two groups. At the height of the Cokely controversy, Jackson said he condemned anti-Semitism. Asked specifically about Cokely’s statements, he said it is “time to consider the source and move on.” A press spokesman for Jackson said Jackson viewed Cokely as “a very low-ranking staff member whom few people knew and who represented virtually no constituency.”

The failure of Sawyer’s campaign to attract white voters suggests that the black political leaders, who are part of an increasingly successful black middle and upper-middle class, are paying a price for the continued deterioration in the situation of poor blacks. According to figures compiled by the Urban Institute, since 1982 there has been a growing economic split within the black community. Blacks in the top half of the income distribution have raised their incomes significantly faster than their white counterparts have. In the bottom half of the income distribution, black income has declined, while the income of poor whites has improved. And since 1982, all the symptoms of social decay within Chicago’s ghettos—illegitimacy, unemployment, female-headed households, dropout rates—have continued or have intensified. The number of violent crimes, including aggravated assault, rape, murder, and robbery, has grown from 60,011 cases in 1985 to 69,318 cases in 1988, an increase of over 16 percent in a city with a static population. From 1970 to 1980, the rate of poverty has grown in such Chicago slums as Oakland from 44 to 61 percent, in Grand Boulevard from 37 to 51 percent, and in Washington Park from 28 to 43 percent, according to University of Chicago scholars William Julius Wilson and Loic J.D. Wacquant. In the January 1989 issue of The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Wilson and Wacquant write: “The ghetto seems to have gone unaffected by the economic boom of the last five years. If anything, conditions have continued to worsen.”

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