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Was Cecil's column about nonpartisan mayoral elections racist bullshit?
December 23, 2010

Dear Cecil:

[Regarding your column on nonpartisan mayor elections], straight dope my ass. Straight racist crap is more like it ... Though the gloss given in "straight dope" suggests otherwise, the fact of the matter is that the way that most of white Chicago reacted to Harold Washington, who won the mayoral election fair-and-square (with far more grass-roots organizing and support than any Daley could ever hope to obtain), was absolutely outrageous and self-consciously racist. The way that the white-controlled City Council tried to thwart his reformist agenda was criminal and reprehensible.

But the tone of the straight-dope piece expresses none of this obviously unsavory truth. It adopts a tone of faux-objectivity that paves over the very real, disgusting attacks that Washington faced. It tacitly endorses the disgusting attacks by giving the voice of white outrage a veneer of credibility and universality. You'd hardly know from reading the article that
… [rant truncated, but continues in this vein for quite a while].

— Pink Scare

Cecil Adams replies:

So Pink, you're upset. Was it something I said?

Once you're done hyperventilating, you might want to re-read my column and give it a little more thought. I was trying to convey two points. First, nonpartisan elections, seemingly a pillar of good government, were initially proposed in Chicago to prevent a black man from being re-elected mayor. Second, they're a good idea just the same.

Is the latter contention racist? I gather you think so. But let's inquire more closely. Chicago is unusual among U.S. cities in having no majority racial or ethnic group. According to the census bureau, the city currently is 40 percent white, 35 percent black, 5 percent Asian, 2 percent mixed race, and the balance "some other race." (What other races are there? Search me. I'm just telling you what census bureau says.)

What that means is that no mayoral candidate in Chicago today can win election solely by appealing to members of his or her own ethnicity. Is that a good thing? Sure. But it wasn't strictly true in 1983. As I pointed out, Harold Washington won the Democratic primary with just 37 percent of the vote, with Jane Byrne and Richie Daley splitting the remainder. True, Washington then had to run against a Republican challenger in the general election, but historically those contests had been a joke — Chicago has about as many Republicans as it has Inuit. Amazingly, several hundred thousand GOP adherents materialized in time to vote for the Republican candidate, Bernard Epton, resulting in the closest mayoral election in modern times. Washington nonetheless won, 52 percent to 48 percent.

Now let's tease out what that means:

  • Was everyone who voted for Epton a racist? Given that most Chicagoans up till then would sooner have voted for a hamster than a Republican, it's fair to say race was a major motivation.

  • Did Washington somehow sneak into office? Of course not. He received a majority of the vote in the general election.

  • Was his election nonetheless something of a fluke? Absolutely. Had he faced only one white candidate in the primary, he'd have lost.

  • Was Washington a narrow-minded demagogue who pitched his campaign strictly at black people? No. Notwithstanding the contention by one commentator that he was "a ruthless and colorful black political boss," the more reasonable view (i.e., mine) was that Washington was, by Chicago standards, a fair-minded guy who made a genuine effort to engage people of all races. That he had little success in doing so in the early going wasn't his fault but rather that of his opponents. The fact remains that his winning percentage in the 1983 primary almost exactly matched the city's ethnic makeup. White people voted for white candidates, and black people voted for the black candidate. He won, in short, because of the obsessive narrow-mindedness of Chicagoans of the day.

  • Was Washington despite all this a good mayor, of whom Chicagoans of all races may justly be proud? No question in my mind. We were fortunate — far more so than we deserved. Washington might have been a disaster for Chicago. Whatever people may think of his era now, he wasn't. Though he made his share of mistakes, he opened up the process and brought into City Hall people who'd previously been shut out. And I don't mean just black people; among other things, he hired many talented women. The inclusiveness for which Richie Daley later became known began under Washington. Daley gets much of the credit for Chicago's turnaround, but in important ways it began under Washington.

  • Was the process by which Washington was elected nonetheless a bad idea, and are nonpartisan elections an improvement? Let's be frank: yes.

I'm guessing that's where we part company, Pink. You write:

[W]e're told that the "solution" to the Harold Washington "problem" was the "non-partisan" mayoral procedure, which, we're told, has the virtue both of solving the Washington "problem" and forcing candidates to appeal to voters across racial divisions.

The fact is that the "power brokers" that the article seems to side with did not want there to be a Black mayor and they used every available means to try to thwart his plans and have him removed.

This is a little convoluted, and misrepresents what I said. But to put the most favorable spin on it, you seem to be arguing that because some white power brokers supported nonpartisan elections in hopes of preventing another back-door victory by a black man, nonpartisan elections are inherently racist. I venture to say most people wouldn't agree with you, but you'd undoubtedly retort that that's because most people are white. They have the luxury of supporting a system that gives the appearance of fairness but as a practical matter makes it more difficult for another black man to become mayor.

There's an element of truth in that contention. Nonpartisan elections do close off the route by which Washington initially reached the mayor's office. Since the African-American fraction of Chicago's population has been largely unchanged for years, the odds of a black man becoming mayor purely on the strength of the black vote are nil. James Meeks, many would agree, doomed whatever chance he had in the upcoming election by arguing that minority contracts should only go to blacks. (Son of a gun, as I post this, I see he's now dropped out.)

But let's not forget the peculiar fact about Chicago. Blacks can't win citywide office by appealing strictly to their own kind, but whites are also in the minority and they can't either. One may take the paranoid view that, given the opportunity, non-black Chicagoans will unite in voting against a black candidate, but there's no basis for that belief. In the 1987 primary, Washington went one-on-one with Jane Byrne and decisively defeated her, then went on to win an equally comfortable majority against two white candidates in the general election. And let's not forget that Obama fellow. You live in a town that's coughed up plenty of black politicians whose appeal crossed racial lines. You think it can't come up with one more? 

And now you'll have to excuse me — I need to attend to the misguided element that puts ketchup on its hot dogs. Not to make light of your concerns, but let's keep our priorities straight.

— Cecil Adams

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