Monday, January 17, 2011

King Day? Mayoral election will tell us more about state of our race relations

Monday is the day we officially pay tribute to Martin Luther King, Jr., who if he were still alive today would have turned 82 on Saturday. There will be much blather about how far we as a society have advanced in terms of race relations.

There also will be some people who will pipe down, gritting their teeth in disgust at the thought of paying tribute to King but also not wanting to say something stupid even though it reflects their true feelings.

IF ANYTHING, IT is those people who interest me more than anyone who comes up with some sort of rhetoric praising King’s memory, his work to strive for equal rights for all (at a time when many people seriously thought that segregation was a part of the American Way of life).

They keep quiet, but then take some subtle action meant to maintain some sense of the old way of doing things.

It is those people who most have me wondering about the upcoming mayoral elections. Because I think they are the ones who will impact the outcome.

I honestly believe that the significance of this particular election cycle is that we will learn just how far we have advanced in race relations in the past few decades.

IT HASN’T BEEN that much of a factor thus far, because we’re at the point where there are so many candidates that the individual campaigns can focus on themselves and pretend everybody else doesn’t exist.

In fact, there really have been two significant storylines taking place during this election cycle, with the followers of each story pretty much ignoring the other.

Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday holiday gives us one day a year to assess the status of our race relations, when we ought to be concerned about that topic year-round. Photograph provided by Library of Congress collection.

One cycle has centered around Rahm Emanuel and his attempt to build up a campaign structure so overwhelming that his election on April 5 will be inevitable. Let all the local candidates with their neighborhood bases of support (and the opposition of everybody who can’t stand their particular neighborhood) dump all over each other, while Emanuel gets the business community’s backing and becomes the new chief executive of Chicago city government.

The other cycle has focused on the attempt by African-American activists to narrow down their field to a lone candidate, in hopes that all the non-black candidates dump all over each other – clearing the way for a black person to become mayor of Chicago. I realize there are actually three African-American people out of the six mayoral candidates, but I’m not convinced that William “Dock” Walls or Patricia Van Pelt-Watkins can gain enough support (even though personally, there are times when I think Watkins is the only one of the six candidates worth taking seriously).

BUT ONCE WE get past the Feb. 22 election that will narrow the six down to two, we’re going to see how enlightened we truly are.

I don’t think we’ll get the blunt rhetoric like we saw back in ’83. No watermelon jokes or campaign ads about voting against the black guy, “before it’s too late.” But it will be the more subtle type of hostility – which can be just as negative as the most blunt-spoken nitwit wearing a Klan hood.

The cynic in me wonders how many of the people who are now screaming they will vote for Anybody But Rahm will manage to overcome that politically partisan hang-up if the “anybody” turns out to be an African-American person – most likely in the form of former Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun.

Or what happens if Moseley-Braun’s political hang-ups wind up dragging her into third place – and out of the running for a run-off election? Will a large segment of the city population (the African-American part) suddenly pout and whine about being excluded if the election becomes one of Rahm Emanuel versus Gery Chico?

THE DEGREE TO which either of these scenarios occurs will be the evidence of how far we have come in race relations.

Because for all the people who claim they don’t want race or ethnicity to be factors in the mayoral campaign, all too often their rhetoric indicates they only see this as a problem if a non-white candidate gains voter support due to it.

Did anyone think that that famed political science professor Milton Rakove was being irrelevant when, in his two classic books about Chicago politics (“We Don’t Want Nobody Nobody Sent” and “Don’t Make No Waves, Don’t Back No Losers”), he went out of his way to identify the ethnic backgrounds of every single political person he wrote about?

Considering the degree to which ethnicity and ethnic ties have been a part of Chicago political alliances throughout the decades, I can’t help but wonder if this is just part of the city’s multi-ethnic texture – and that African-American interest in such factors merely means they’re fitting in with everybody else.

THE FACT IS that race and ethnicity are factors in our society. Sometimes they help us rise to higher levels, while other times they drag us down into the muck.

So while some people are going to use Monday as the day by which they judge where we as a society are and how far we have advanced in terms of race relations, I honestly believe that April 5 will be the better date to judge us here in Chicago.

At the very least, I hope we have advanced significantly since that August day in 1966 when King protested in the Marquette Park neighborhood – also the day that we became the city where King himself got hit in the head with a brick.


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