In Chicago, our mayors stay in office for a long time.
For 40 years, two of them were named Daley.
So it was surprising that Chicago’s current mayor, Rahm Emanuel, announced last week that he wouldn’t seek a third term. I’m a Chicago native and a longtime reporter here, and in the days since the mayor dropped his news, every conversation and text message is punctuated with questions about who will enter the race. Political pontificating is in full swing.
It’s not just about who will take over Chicago, which I often think of as like Rome, a city-state governing itself. Machine politics and “the Chicago way” determine who gets elected and who stays in office. The real question is a bigger one, one that applies to other cities, too: Can the person who becomes the next mayor of one of the most segregated cities in the country actually talk about this reality — actually campaign on ending segregation — and win?
That Chicago is one of the most segregated cities in the United States is a fact that is treated by too many here as a footnote or a quirky characteristic, like deep-dish pizza. Segregation gets ignored because it’s accepted.
But segregation is intentional, and dismantling it must be, too.
Mr. Emanuel declared he was bowing out of the mayor’s race the day before the trial began for Jason Van Dyke, the white Chicago police officer who shot and killed a black teenager, Laquan McDonald, in 2014. The city had tried fruitlessly to delay the release of dash camera video of the shooting. The killing, and accusations of a cover-up, have dogged Mr. Emanuel ever since. Young activists would yell “16 shots” and “resign, Rahm” at him during events.
Chicago’s population is divided almost equally among African-Americans, Latinos and whites, and the geographic Balkanization allows segregation to infect neighborhoods with the graveness of a waterborne disease. Too many politicians, black and white, do not address the realities of segregation head on. It is as if speaking directly about this reality — vacant lots, boarded-up buildings and paltry economic investment in majority-black neighborhoods — will turn voters off or make even more real the reality that Chicagoans live every day.
Police accountability in Chicago has received a lot of attention, and that has led to a federal investigation into brutality in the department. Policing isn’t the only problem. Schools, pension payouts, a black population steadily dipping, a shrinking middle class, violence. Mr. Emanuel didn’t invent any of these issues, but they have certainly come to a head after decades in the making.
Longtime residents must juxtapose those challenges with images of a sparkling skyline downtown, a thriving business district, a new river walk and pockets of white North Side wealth expanding. Scholars at the University of Illinois at Chicago released a report last year that stated, “Racial and ethnic inequities in Chicago remain pervasive, persistent, and consequential.”
So a wide-open mayoral field also means that perhaps candidates will actually talk about segregation. Race-neutral policies rooted only in class won’t work. Job creation downtown doesn’t help black neighborhoods with high unemployment. Affordable housing is scarce in affluent white neighborhoods.
It sounds so simple to ask an elected official to talk in a direct way about segregation. But it’s actually bold, because we don’t hear such talk.
“If mayoral candidates actually used the s-word, and acknowledged that segregation is rooted in racism, and acknowledged government’s culpability as a vehicle for and perpetuator of racism, then we might have a very different mayoral race,” said Marisa Novara, of the nonprofit Metropolitan Planning Council. “We might have candidates willing to embrace solutions that go beyond programs to actual structural change.”
Ms. Novara is a lead author of a report that details the billions of dollars the region loses because of entrenched segregation. The council has also put forth two dozen recommendations this past spring to fight segregation, including limiting City Council members from blocking affordable housing and finding ways to merge public schools to achieve racial and economic integration.
Chicago is a great, quintessential American city, despite the singular narrative we’ve all heard and bristled at. We’re more than gunshots in the headlines.
It can be disorienting, and frustrating, to see the president tweet about our city. “If Chicago doesn’t fix the horrible ‘carnage’ going on, 228 shootings in 2017 with 42 killings (up 24% from 2016), I will send in the Feds!” he wrote last year. I can read that and then go to the Englewood neighborhood and see a block club president pick vegetables from a vacant lot she bought and transformed into an oasis. I don’t live in a war zone, despite what President Trump thinks.
In between the reign of the Daleys, Harold Washington occupied City Hall as Chicago’s first black mayor. He died in office in 1987, during his second term, while fulfilling his promises of creating opportunities for all races and giving community members a seat at the table. His elections marked the last time an interracial coalition was forged to change who runs this city. I don’t want to dwell in nostalgia, but I do think that could happen again. It depends on how honest we’re willing to be with each other first.
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