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The Reader at 40: 1980

The year in Chicago history via the pages of the Reader



Nineteen-eighty was Chicago's first full year of the Jane Byrne Era. Glorious times for the press! This is from something I wrote on February 8:

February 8, 1980

The Press: The Royko-Griffin Affair


Royko was amazed at the City Hall Source who confirmed his story. He was so amazed at this source—who called him up and said it was true that [mayoral aide Bill] Griffin was looking into an old incident in which Royko poured catsup on an actress in a Lincoln Avenue pub, into that and more, and he was doing it because his wife wears the pants—that Royko was talking about it openly at O'Rourke's the night before the column hit the streets.

This source was Mayor Jane Byrne . . .

What in the world was going on here? Why was the mayor trying to undermine her own chief of staff? I asked Royko. "I'm no longer able to figure out what she's doing or why she's doing it—it's such irrational conduct."

The Most Provocative Article the Reader Ever Published

May 16, 1980

The Intelligence Question

"The Intelligence Question," by Flora Johnson, on May 16, began:

Are black people stupid?

Each of us knows black people who are not stupid—possibly even two or three. But what about all those black people we do not know? The skinny men with the big asses. . . . The tired women who move their legs as though they were shifting the trunks of trees. The kids in torn sneakers with radios three times the size of their brains. . . . We—we white people, we rich people, we middle-class people—see them on the street and on the el. We watch them sometimes. Sometimes (the cleaning lady on her way from Evanston home to someplace we have never been) we pity them. When they annoy us (when they play their radios too loudly on the el), we despise them. Are they stupid?

It ended, 19 pages later:

Sometimes it seems to me that we should tear the goddamned schools down stone by stone and sow the ground with salt.


The Reader published responses to Johnson's article for the next seven weeks. A sampling:

. . . the clearest, most sensible exposition of the issues that I have seen in a 40-year career of teaching students at every level from ninth grade of high school to postdoctoral research programs . . .

Wasn't 6 million Jews enough? Do you need to see that same experience happen to 6 million blacks . . . ?

. . . a welcome change from the usual drivel that you headline . . .

. . . I will tell you what intelligence is, and I will tell you if black people are dumb or not. Intelligence is the ability to keep faith in the idea that life is ultimately a good experience no matter what one has to suffer—no matter what history of suffering has preceded one's life . . .

". . . In 1975 I represented three black medical students who were expelled from the Chicago branch of the [University of Illinois] medical school for cheating on a first year comprehensive examination. . . . The sole evidence used to discipline them was testimony by university statisticians that the students did better on the exam than could have been statistically predicted based on their Medical School Aptitude Tests and their college grades . . .

. . . surely a child nurtured on the filth, disease, crime, the hate, the intensity of life in the ghetto or most black communities, a child who is bombarded with the message (from day one, mind you) that he is ugly, an animal, he is stupid . . . the wonder is not that the black children do poorly on IQ tests, but that they function and succeed at all.

. . . Special education is not an educational death sentence, as Ms. Johnson implies. It is an individualized program of instruction . . .

We are all stupid in one way or another. Each of us knows white people who are not stupid—possibly even two or three. But what about all of those white people we do not know? The small-minded editors with the big pretensions, whose fashionable liberalism is stained with racism? The tired writers who twist their logic as though they were shifting sand on a beach . . .

As it turned out, I was anything but the dunce those school bureaucrats had labeled me. I was simply slowly going blind . . .

. . . the next time you want to insult a race of people try insulting whites. After all, they are the dirty dogs who stole the country from the Indians and then killed them all. Whites are the ones who enslaved a race of people just because of their skin color. From a 16-year-old who has many white friends who agree.

A Poem: Are Black

People Stupid?

After you get banged in the head,

It's hard to catch up to the person

With the hammer.

I remember my school, the smell,

The odor,

The hours of nothing . . .

February 1, 1980

Dining for Dollars


"Restaurant critics are fat, piggy people. They should be put in jail, locked up. . . . I don't want people who talk into microphones eating in my restaurant."

Nick Nickolas of Nick's Fishmarket to Toni Schlesinger

in "Dining for Dollars," February 1.

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