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 …

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Letters

Race & Chicago Politics June 15, 1989