Two men on a street in the South Side, 1974 (Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images).

December 17, 2021   6 mins

Earlier this year, the Mayor of Chicago Lori Lightfoot declared racism to be a public health crisis. Her announcement followed a comprehensive report by the Chicago Department of Public Health, which contained a litany of grim statistics: Black children born in Chicago are three times more likely to die in the first year of life than other infants in the city; half of Chicago’s HIV-positive residents are black, in spite of African Americans making up just 30% of the population; African American Chicagoans are nine times more likely to be murdered and can expect to live nine years less than average; in Englewood on the South Side, where 95% of residents are Black, life expectancy is just 60-years-old, lower than in Afghanistan.

Unsurprisingly, Lightfoot’s consequent identification of “systemic racism” as the cause of these disparities provoked derision among her critics. The city, after all, is governed by a black mayor with an almost entirely Democratic city council, where the majority of aldermen are black or Hispanic. At the state and federal level, Chicago is represented by a group of multi-racial, left-of-centre politicians. The city even has the longest, unbroken tradition of black political representation of anywhere in the United States.

This paradox is at the heart of the city’s problems with race, and demonstrates the limitations of a political agenda focused primarily on descriptive representation. Chicago has long had “black faces in high places”, but too often this did not translate into substantive change. Indeed, the health disparities identified in the CDPH report are the consequence of a complicated political history, which reveals not just the dilemma of black electoral politics in one city but the problem of using the city as the vehicle for social reform.

As Barack Obama — whose foundation boasts of his “deep Windy City roots” — once described, Chicago is regarded by many as “the capital of the African American community in the country”. Founded by an African-Caribbean explorer in the eighteenth century, black people have lived in the Chicago area longer than any group except for Native Americans. Their long history of residence and spatial concentration, due to residential segregation, made Chicago the epicentre of black political life in the United States. Given this backdrop, the historian Timuel Black insisted, the first African American president could only have come from Chicago.

It was, as the authors of the classic 1945 work Black Metropolis describe, the “city of refuge” for African Americans; first, as the terminus of a line on the Underground Railroad and, later, as the place of settlement for hundreds of thousands fleeing the tyranny of the Jim Crow South during the Great Migration in the first half of the twentieth century.

But while life in Chicago was perceived as a better alternative to life in the South, formal and informal restrictions on black employment and housing, as well as racially motivated violence, ensured that African Americans operated separately and unequally from the city’s white population. When Martin Luther King came to protest the city’s residential racial segregation in 1966, he commented: “I have never seen, even in Mississippi and Alabama, mobs as hateful as I’ve seen here in Chicago.”

And yet it was precisely this racial segregation that provided African Americans with electoral power. Their size and spatial concentration within the city due to severe racial segregation created powerful blocs of African American voters, who were the plurality in numerous city, state, and even federal districts. The First Congressional District (IL:01), anchored in the South Side, elected the first northern black member of Congress in 1928. It has been represented by African Americans ever since. Barack Obama, incidentally, unsuccessfully sought election to this seat in 2000; former Black Panther, Bobby Rush who defeated Barack Obama — the only candidate ever to do so — still represents the First District.

For decades, however, black politics in Chicago was dominated by white-led political machines. These were informal political organisations, usually dominated by a charismatic leader, engaged in patronage in exchange for votes.

The most notorious was the machine of Richard Daley, known euphemistically as the ‘Organization’. Daley père et fils governed Chicago for 43 of the years between 1955 to 2011. At his height, it was said that the elder Mayor Daley could appoint 45,000 patronage positions — roughly ten times the number appointed by the President of the United States. Daley’s primary constituency was the city’s Irish-American population, and he did little to alleviate the conditions of the city’s African American population.

In these years, many black leaders were complicit with the Organization, albeit always as junior members. During the elder Daley’s mayoralty, the six black aldermen on Chicago City Council were so total in their loyalty and quiet in their criticism that they were known as the ‘Silent Six’. They operated what became known as the black ‘sub-machine’, whereby the Organization devolved some degree of patronage power to black leadership in exchange for their loyalty. Such was Daley’s control of the city’s black leadership that the entertainer Dick Gregory once remarked: “You have to respect Daley. He has a big job being mayor, governor, prosecutor, and president of the Chicago Branch of the NAACP.”

In response to the machine’s malevolence, from the Sixties, reformist black leaders stood as candidates independent from the Organization. The Black independent movement came out of the civil rights imperative, and the heart of the movement was in Chicago’s multi-racial enclave of Hyde Park on the South Side.

One of its leading figures was Richard Newhouse, who was elected to the Illinois State Senate in 1967. Over the next quarter century, Newhouse operated independently of the machine, often threatening to abstain on key votes in the closely divided state senate until the machine conceded to his demands. Through this strategy, he was able to secure the passage of the Illinois Fair Housing Practices Act. In 1975, when Richard J Daley ran for a sixth term as mayor, Newhouse stood against him, making him the first African American candidate for mayor of Chicago.

Don Rose, who was active in Hyde Park politics during Newhouse’s tenure, remembers that in the 1960s and 1970s Newhouse ‘was often cited as [one day] our first black president’. Newhouse never achieved this accolade, but his state senate district did produce the first black president. In 1995, four years after Newhouse’s retirement, Barack Obama declared his intention to fill the seat. At his announcement event, the outgoing incumbent gushed: “Barack Obama carries on the tradition of independence in this district, a tradition that continued with me and most recently with Senator Newhouse.”

In the state legislature, Obama pushed for a reformist policy agenda while largely resisting the patronage of City Hall. He even asked his wife Michelle to quit her job in the Daley administration as he was preparing to run for the state senate. Michelle’s family had been supporters of the Organization, and her late father had been a precinct captain for the Daley machine in the 5th Ward.

Obama, however, understood the importance of maintaining good terms with black machine ‘regulars’, such as the State Senate President Emil Jones. He was willing to work with the machine, who provided him with favours in return, not least the freedom to redraw his legislative district boundaries after the 2000 Census in his favour. Obama was a reformer but a tactical one.

In 1969, the Northwestern University political scientist Paul Friesema predicted that in the coming years, African Americans would win more mayoralties across the United States. Cities, which had once been overwhelmingly white, were becoming more diverse, and in some places African Americans could command a plurality of the vote. Friesema warned, however, that black political power at the city level would constitute a “hollow prize”.

Part of the reason why African Americans were becoming more numerically dominant was due to the departure of white, middle-class residents to the suburbs. As whites moved out, they took their wealth with them, and city property values declined. Local government is dependent on property tax for its funding: the fewer high value properties, the less revenue to spend on the city’s social priorities. It is a constant dilemma of urban politics. With tight borders and relative ease of transport in and out of the city, it is easy for a high wealth resident to relocate to a lower-tax jurisdiction yet still enjoy the benefits of proximity to the city. Zoning laws are then used to ensure that only high value properties can be built in these localities.

As Friesema predicted, in the Eighties, Chicago elected its first black mayor, Harold Washington, who emerged from the Black independent movement around Hyde Park. Washington attempted to pursue policies which would benefit the city’s African American population, such as creating job centres in the South and West Sides. He even met a young community organiser named Barack Obama at one of them in 1987, shortly before his sudden death. Yet, for all of Washington’s charisma, courage, and vision, his efforts were stymied by an uncooperative council and constant lack of resources, as the Reagan administration asked cities to take on more responsibilities with less funding.

Mayor Lightfoot’s public health declaration, on the other hand, was unusual in that she was able to accompany it with substantive resources, but this was entirely a product of one-off $1.2 billion Covid-19 relief allocated to the city by the federal government. The vast majority of this money had to be used to plug operational funding gaps, including, controversially, $280 million to the Chicago Police Department.

To tackle the public health emergency of racism, Lightfoot announced $9.6 million to be allocated to the establishment of six Equity Zones across the city which are meant to “create community-based stakeholder coalitions to develop targeted strategies to improve community and individual wellness”. These may be warm words, but unless accompanied by wider reform and much greater resources, it is hard to see how such initiatives can be any more than a sticking plaster.

Black politics in Chicago, as in the rest of the United States, is not a monolith. Black nationalists, socialists, and reform-minded liberals contended with transactional black leaders, who too often accepted the status quo in exchange for political status.

Yet, even after more radical black leadership gained control of the city, change has been difficult to achieve due to the limited resources available to city governments. As Chicago has learnt, victory in municipal government is too often a hollow prize.

Richard Johnson is a Lecturer in US Politics and Policy at Queen Mary University of London.