Fighting ignorance since 1973 Its taking longer than we thought
Was Cecil's column about nonpartisan
mayoral elections racist bullshit?
[Regarding your column on
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.
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:
I'm guessing that's where we part company, Pink. You write:
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.
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