A Black man, a Mexican, and a Puerto Rican walk into a bar; there is no joke, there is no punchline. Instead, I want to tell you the story about how individuals from resource-starved communities came together to support Chicago’s first African-American mayor, Harold Washington. It’s a stark contrast to the sharp racial division that is now playing in the decennial remapping of Chicago’s city wards.
In the 1800s, as Irish immigrants settled in the U.S., “No Irish Need Apply” signs popped up across the eastern seaboard. The newcomers were discriminated against by other white people. This type of oppression had nothing to do with race and everything to do with resources. Once white communities realized that there were enough resources to go around, discrimination towards Irish immigrants started to subside.
In 1980 the African-American population in Chicago was 1.2 million residents strong. In the same year, the Hispanic-Latino community was 422,000, with the white population being roughly 1.3 million residents.
After Washington won the Democratic primary, most white Democratic committee members got behind Republican candidate, Bernard Epton. Epton received 48 percent of the vote to Harold’s 52 percent. While a lot of credit is given to white progressives known as “Lakefront Liberals,” there wasn’t enough of them to overthrow the regular Democratic party. The swing vote of the Hispanic- Latino community tilted the election towards Washington. It was also the election of Luis Gutierrez to the city council in a special election that helped break the “Council Wars” and give Washington the power he needed to govern effectively. I get teary-eyed thinking about it, a multi-racial, cross-generational campaign that brought most of the city together.
So how did we go from everyone rejoicing, singing kumbaya, and working to build up our resourced starved communities to now trading barbs? Most would say it was the death ofWashington. Chicago political aficionados love to wax poetic about him.
Whenever someone talks about Black and Brown coalitions, they pull out pics of Washington with now U.S. Rep Chuy Garcia or former U.S. Rep Luis Gutierrez. They say, ‘Hey, these guys did it right; we should follow their lead.’ Garcia and Rudy Lozano helped deliver the Mexican-American vote to Washington. After Gutierrez won his special election, he was instrumental in helping Washington navigate the council. So, why is it so difficult for today’s Black and Hispanic caucus to continue that type of coalition-building?
What played out is, we allowed former mayor, Richard M. Daley to sell us on the notion that each community was not getting its fair share of resources. Later, this same mayor created an organization that took out then State Senator Garcia for no other reason than retribution and spreading a narrative that didn’t work in the mayor’s best interest. Sprinkle a lot of Black and Brown aldermen being bought off and sold the same thing, and we have the divisions that we see now.
There are silver linings, but we won’t find them looking solely at our elected officials. We must look at the communities where we see organic integration in our segregated city. Lawndale, Little Village, South Chicago, and West Englewood are all communities where you see Black and Brown people living side by side bonded by one thing—A lack of resources. Garcia, Gutierrez, and Washington fought for the same resources 40 years ago.
So as the Hispanic and Black caucus spar over representation on the council. What shouldn’t be lost is that there are enough resources for both communities to prosper and that history has shown us we are stronger together.