Fade to Whiteness

How Barack Obama Killed Black Power In Chicago

The election of Rahm Emanuel as Chicago’s First Jewish Mayor must be considered the final nail in the coffin of Black Power in Chicago. The long, slow demise of Black Power Chicago Style has been painful to witness. Amazingly, only 20 percent of Chicago’s 600,000 Black registered voters actually voted in this past February’s general election. Rahm Emanuel racked up close to 60 percent of those Blacks who bothered to vote at all. And the “Black consensus candidate”? Former Senator Carol Mosley Braun won only one of Chicago’s fifty wards. Surely Chicago’s First Black Mayor, Harold Washington, is spinning in his grave.

How did this happen? The most salient cause for the death of Black Power in Chicago rests with the First Black President, himself, Barack Obama. Harold Washington’s 1983 election as Chicago’s First Black Mayor crowned Chicago as Black America’s political capital. Home to both Jesse Jackson and Louis Farrakhan, Black folks from around the country trekked to Chicago to study and replicate in their own cities the methods and means of Washington’s upset victory.

1983 marked the inauguration of not just a new and progressive Black mayor. Long dormant notions of “Black Power” as the political and economic embodiment of an over-arching philosophy of “Black Nationalism” were reinvigorated by a distinctly Chicago-esq infusion of energy and urgency. A renewed consciousness – a New Black Renaissance – rose phoenix-like amidst the ashes of Ronald Reagan’s all out assault against the cities and all things Black. Throughout Washington’s five-year reign, street gang violence in Chicago’s tougher Black neighborhoods dropped precipitously. A new optimism pervaded those self same neighborhoods. Senior citizens were afforded more honor and respect. Everyone, young people especially, held their heads higher as visions of limitless possibility became real and tangible. Not only a “can-do”, but a must-do spirit prevailed. People actually spoke to each other on the streets.

Basking in the afterglow of Washington’s triumph, Jesse Jackson was an unintended beneficiary of a large measure of Black Chicago’s newfound political capital. He promptly sought to exploit Washington’s success by launching his own now “serious” run for the presidency in 1984. But Washington’s unexpected death just three years later shocked Black Chicago into a state of political paralysis from which it has yet to recover. Thus, beginning in 1989, Black candidate after Black candidate, in election cycle after election cycle, attempted to pick up Washington’s fallen sword of state. Each, by default, assumed the role of Chicago’s Great Black Hope, the most prominent of whom included:

  • a former appellate court justice;
  • a former state attorney general;
  • a sitting congressman;
  • a Baptist preacher, and most recently,
  • America’s erstwhile First Black Female Senator.

None of these people managed to recapture Washington’s magic, and Richard M. Daley’s Black vote percentages grew with each passing election.

After Washington’s death, Chicago’s united Black community split into assorted pieces and factions — from something called the “Harold Washington Party” to the “Regular” (read white) Democratic Party Organization, which included a significant number of Black aldermen who were beholden to Daley for their appointments to office. A separate set of Black aldermen loyal to Washington’s memory faced off against “Black nationalists” who themselves were at odds with “Black community activists.”

The few “Black capitalists” who owned modest to large real estate holdings, insurance companies, ad agencies, neighborhood banks and currency exchanges, etc. were deeply indebted to the giant national and multi-national banks and mortgage houses downtown. There was (and remains) only one daily Black newspaper (The Chicago Defender), amidst a plethora of neighborhood newsletters. Black presence in electronic media was also negligible, with the exception of religious and various music programming and formats. The one Black radio talk station, WVON (“Voice of the Nation” nee “Voice of the Negro”) saturated the Black community with “black consciousness” programming and was instrumental in getting Washington elected. Black academics generally postured as “nonpartisan” while the ever present Black preachers sat on Daley-dominated boards and commissions which oversaw the systematic dismantling of public education and public housing.

The masses of Chicago’s Black poor and working classes were unevenly dispersed among all these groups and slowly re-adapted to, and ultimately adopted, the new and improved Daley dominance. Adapting his late father’s tried and true pattern of divide and conquer to new conditions, Richard M. Daley patiently, methodically deepened these divisions. He used to full effect the vast power of political patronage, also developed by his father over his 21-year reign as mayor, and placed Black political sycophants in high profile positions while purging his Black political enemies. By the time mayoral election of 2011 rolled around, Black Chicago as a singular and potent political force was little more than a wistful memory.

Daley’s surprise announcement of his retirement after 22 straight years in office caught everybody off guard, especially Chicago’s putative Black power brokers. A farcical mad dash to identify a “consensus Black candidate” began with at least three separate groups of Black “leaders” convening – each ironically proclaiming “Black unity” as its prime directive. And “candidates” sprouted like mushrooms after a spring rain. There were, of course, the usual suspects – a bevy of perennial (professional) candidates, former and current congressmen, community activists, city, county and state elected officeholders, and the ubiquitous black preachers (one of whom was both a state senator and pastor of one of Chicago’s largest “mega churches”).

In a sad irony, dripping with historical overtones, the one Black politician who held the most promise to actually defeat the Daley machine had shot himself in both feet just after Obama became America’s First Black President — Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr. Junior had been groomed since his election to Harold’s congressional seat in 1995 to some day succeed Harold Washington as Mayor of Chicago as well. But, in what may only be described as a tragi-comedy, he had disqualified himself by making constant, very public, very loud and obsequious pleas to be named as Obama’s U.S. Senate successor by the indicted (and ultimately impeached and criminally convicted) ex-governor Rod Blagojevich. Further, an allegation surfaced against the married Congressman of an unseemly dalliance with a youthful blond Washington, D.C. “hostess.” Jackson Junior’s less than forthcoming explanations for both incidents ruled him out of the mayoral sweepstakes.

Thus, at one candidates’ forum held at a historic Black Baptist church, over 20 individuals showed up claiming to be “The One.” The one Black candidate, that is, whom Black Chicago was looking for as the rightful heir, protector and embodiment of Harold Washington’s legacy.

Early in the First Black President’s term his Chief of Staff, Rahm Emanuel, publicly declared that he considered the mayoralty of Chicago as his ultimate “dream” job – but would only seek that office if the current mayor, Richard M. Daley (after 21 consecutive years in office), chose not to run again. This pronouncement set in motion a fast-moving and apparently unstoppable train of events: The First Black President rushed to bless his Chief of Staff’s aspirations, dutifully declaring that Rahm would make a “great” mayor of Chicago. Daley, as if on cue, promptly announced his retirement, citing, among other reasons for his decision, family issues (sick wife). The First Black President’s Chief of Staff, again in turn, resigned and returned to Chicago to run for his now suddenly open “dream job.” (Of course, it was merely coincidental that Rahm Emanuel had once also served as Daley’s Chief of Staff). And then, the pièce de résistance: As Emanuel’s replacement, the First Black President nominated the mayor’s very own brother, William Daley, recently a Wall Street honcho and past heavyweight in the Clinton regime, as his new Chief of Staff. Emanuel went on to soundly defeat all comers, Black and Hispanic. The Hispanic vote split between two prominent Hispanic candidates. Conveniently, all potential white candidates had dropped out of the mayoral sweepstakes earlier – actually well before the contest moved even into second gear — without having attended so much as one “white candidate consensus” meeting. The circle had been squared and all is now right with the world.

Black people in Chicago, particularly the elderly, and more particularly elderly Black women, seem to believe that the First Black President can do no wrong. They supported and voted for Emanuel not because he represented anything that might actually help them or our people. They voted for Emanuel because the First Black President told them to. They voted for Emanuel so that the First Black President would not be “embarrassed” by his “base” constituency in his “home town.” How else to explain their desertion of a Black woman, who despite her many flaws, was much more so than Rahm Emanuel or even Obama, himself, ever could be, of them, from them? These people are simply, plainly, thankful that they have lived long enough to see a putatively “Black” family in the White House. His presence alone appears to have satisfied them. His presence alone appears to have compensated them for their long sojourn and travail at the absolute bottom of white America’s political, economic, cultural, social, and racial hierarchies.

Thus, the First Black President is routinely excused for every insult or disrespectful position, policy or utterance he makes with regard to Black people. More often than not, however, he simply ignores Black people and their longstanding “issues.” This First Black President pretends that there is no “Black Agenda” separate or distinct from the larger framework of “America.” (The “rising tide” syndrome). We must understand, his indefatigable supporters argue, the unique pressures that he is under; that for him to openly embrace anything “Black” would alienate him from that minority among whites who put him over the top in 2008 and who will be necessary in 2012 for his re-election. It is then, they believe – hope — that Obama’s “blackness” will come to the fore, when he has no more elections to worry about, when he does not have to answer to the big moneyed people on Wall Street or any other street. Then he will turn his attention to Black people and their unresolved problems.

I agree to a point. At that time, of course, just as he did 30 days prior to the 2010 mid-term elections, the First Black President will re-discover the 40 million Black people who have unwaveringly supported him. But whether he also rediscovers his own blackness, his half-blackness, as well remains to be seen. Until that time, though, Black people should expect more of the same from this First Black President: not much bread, but any number of circuses, with him as the leading purveyor of a particularly venomous snake oil.

Herbert Dyer, Jr. is a Chicago-based freelance writer. Read other articles by Herb.