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Book Reviews

Racial politics in Chicago


Arnold R. Hirsch, "Chicago: The Cook County Democratic Organization and the Dilemma of Race, 1931-1987," pp. 63-90 in Richard M. Bernard, ed. Snowbelt Cities: Metropolitan Politics in the Northeast and Midwest since World War II. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990. Pp. 275 with notes and appendices. $35 (cloth).

Robert T. Starks and Michael B. Preston, "Harold Washington and the Politics of Reform in Chicago: 1983-1987," pp. 88-107 in Rufas P. Browning, Dale Rogers Marshall and David H. Tabb, eds. Racial Politics in American Cities. New York: Longman, 1990. Pp. 243 with notes and index. $18.95 (paper).

Contention among groups for power for control over government and public policy has been a central feature of urban life. In the mid-19th century, newly arriving Irish and German immigrants battled old-stock, "Anglo-Protestant groups for access to American city government. In the early century, newcomers from eastern and southern Europe Italians, Jews, Poles and others posed a threat to Irish and German control. Now, as the 20th century winds down, other minority groups African Americans, Asians and Latinos are challenging today's prevailing patterns of dominance.

The essays organized and edited by Richard Bernard, dean of the faculty and professor of American history at Bethany College in West Virginia, outline this competition for power in 12 of the largest cities in the Northeast and Midwest. The authors in Snowbelt Cities examine the ethnic and racial aspects of the struggle, while also detailing the roles of businessmen and of civic associations. Although the essays in Racial Politics in American Cities focus less broadly, they cover more geography 19 cities in all parts of the country.

Chicago, better than most cities, illustrates the central themes of these two new collections. Most Chicagoans still believe, as Mr. Dooley once observed, that "politics ain't beanbag"; so, they play the game hard and to win. As a result, elections take on an all-or-nothing quality, often accompanied by a mean and nasty tone, because groups are battling each other openly and fiercely for power. In recent years, the city's elections seem to have grown even meaner and nastier, as race increasingly has become the fault line of political conflict.

Arnold Hirsch's fine essay provides the historical context needed to understand racial politics in today's Chicago. Hirsch, a historian at the University of New Orleans and the author of Making the Second Ghetto: Race and Housing in Chicago 1940-1970 (1978), reminds readers that earlier in this century the city's blacks were mainly Republicans, while Chicago Democrats, under Irish leadership, preached the gospel of white unity. During the 1920s "anti-black feeling provided much of the glue that held the [Democratic] party together."

The economic crisis of the 1930s gave the Democrats an opportunity to build a broader, more inclusive coalition. Anton Cermak, mayor of Chicago from 1931 to 1933, courted black voters. Ed Kelly, his successor in office from 1933 to 1947, opposed segregated schools and housing and appointed blacks to the Civil Service Commission and to the Board of Education.

But recruiting blacks created tensions within the Democratic organization. During the 1946 controversy over housing black veterans in Airport Homes, Kelly sealed his own fate by publicly guaranteeing blacks "their right to live peacefully anywhere in Chicago."

His successors, Martin Kennelly (1947-1955) and Richard J. Daley (1955-1976), understood the limits of coalition politics in Chicago. During their administrations, especially Daley's, the Democratic machine became a vehicle for the city's white ethnic communities. It sought votes from blacks every election day, but it ignored their interests in between. By the late 1960s, a younger generation of black leaders came to reject their community's subordinate status within the Democratic machine.

The later phases of the struggle between blacks and the Democratic machine are detailed in the essay by Robert Starks, associate professor with the Center for Inner City Studies at Northeastern University, and Michael Preston, professor of political science at the University of Southern California. They recount the actions taken by Jane Byrne's administration (1979-1983) that aroused the black community and channelled its anger into political outlets. The result was an unprecedented grass-roots effort that registered voters and elected Chicago's first black mayor, Harold Washington, in 1983.

Starks and Preston are especially strong in describing coalition building within the black community. Acutely insightful in their analysis of Washington's brand of "progressive politics" and its implications, they also provide a reasonable and balanced assessment of Washington's successes and failures as mayor.

They err, however, when they compare the results of the 1983 and 1987 mayoral elections. They correctly observe that Washington's 1983 triumph depended mainly on high turnout and cohesive support from blacks. Four years later, Starks and Preston argue incorrectly that Washington's electoral coalition "had a much more multiethnic character than the coalition of 1983." In fact, even their own evidence casts doubts on this claim. Washington's percentage in the white wards in the 1987 elections was no greater than it had been in the 1983 general. Indeed, since turnout was lower in 1987, he received fewer votes from whites than he did in his 1983 contest with Bernard Epton.

Washington's failure to gain wider support among white voters disappointed him because he believed that his administration had earned and deserved better. But anyone who reads Hirsch's essay will understand. Coalitional possibilities in Chicago remain limited. Old resentments and memories of past conflicts inhibit the development of the trust and goodwill necessary to bridge the city's racial divide. The long and sorry history of race relations in the country's most segregated city continues to shape its current politics.

Paul Kleppner is director of the Social Science Research Institute at Northern Illinois University.

February 1991/Illinois Issues/31

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