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J.B. Pritzker is a sneak disser.
For those of you who don't know the lingo, let me explain.
He's the guy who talks crap behind your back. In Pritzker's case, it's on an FBI wiretap. For young black folk like me, to quote the Englewood poet Chief Keef, that's the shit I don't like.
The billionaire candidate for governor, like too many white so-called progressives, is a fake friend to the black community.
Don’t let the army of African-American politicians who back Pritzker tell you otherwise. Be wary of assurances from people like Cook County Board president Toni Preckwinkle, alderman Roderick Sawyer and alderman Walter Burnett, and secretary of state Jesse White. Indeed, don’t believe any other black politician wedded faithfully to the Democratic machine who still supports Pritzker.
Listen instead to what Pritzker said in a conversation with another powerful white man that we weren’t supposed to hear.
The feds had tape rolling in November 2008 when Pritzker gave then-governor Rod Blagojevich his advice on whom to appoint to the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Barack Obama after his ascent to the White House.
Pritzker’s idea: Appoint Jesse White. That, Pritzker told the corrupt former governor who now lives in a federal prison, “covers you on the African-American thing.”
"Of all the African-Americans I can think that are sort of like, qualified, and vetted,” Pritzker says, White was “the one that's least offensive.”
Pritzker also shared his thoughts on who shouldn’t get the U.S. Senate appointment. He starts with Emil Jones, the former Illinois senate president, who isn’t U.S. Senate material because “I mean, you know, he’s just, I don’t know how to say it exactly. But Emil’s a little more crass.”
Crass, just to be clear, is an adjective that means "lacking sensitivity, refinement, or intelligence."
This is what happens when an African-American is deemed too aggressive because they’re not meek. If you’re a black politician in the Democratic Party, you’ll get slapped with the unelectable tag. Or miss out on a Senate appointment. If you’re a black person stopped by police or an overzealous neighborhood watchman, you might get hit with something else. These are all just branches from the same tree, and at its roots lie racist stereotypes that have been used to exclude or harm African-Americans since slavery.
The type of subtle racism revealed in Pritzker’s conversation with Blago hurts on a personal level more than the bigoted words from some politicians on the right. That includes President Donald Trump, Republican gubernatorial candidate Jeanne Ives, and the self-described "white racialist" (Nazi) running unopposed in the Illinois Republican primary for U.S. Congress. These are people who we know don’t align with us politically. But Pritzker reminds us that the white Democratic establishment supports black power—as long as it’s black power they can control.
The FBI wiretap lets us listen in on the secret conversation of two powerful white men callously deciding the terms by which black people are allowed political power.
We know they aren’t the only Illinois power brokers who talk that way.
They just got caught.
Again, we're not shocked by regressive politics from outed bigots like Ives, the Republican Party's answer to Governor Bruce Rauner, because they never claimed to have our backs in the first place.
Ives’s "Thank you, Bruce Rauner" political ad used what appeared to be an actor portraying a deep-voiced trans woman, a white woman in a pussy hat, a supposed immigrant wearing a red bandanna over his face, and a black woman in a Chicago Teachers Union shirt to deride Rauner for his stance on various social issues, which Ives implied don’t measure up to conservative standards.
We’re used to that brand of racism. The way Pritzker talks in code, though, stokes the greatest fears of black folk who navigate white spaces or welcome whites into theirs. The fear of how white people really talk about you when you aren’t within earshot. The fear that your white allies really only value you as a token, and see your blackness as a commodity to leverage toward their own popularity or a way to secure their liberal bona fides. What happens when you're not "safe" in their eyes or don't conform to their ideas of an acceptable black person?
When the news first broke about Pritzker’s coded conversation with Blago, Pritzker immediately called a press conference outside a soul food restaurant on the west side, flanked by black leaders who answered the call.
“I regret some of the things that I didn’t say and some of the things that I did, but my heart is in the right place—that I’ve tried really hard through the course of my life to do the right things for the African-American community and for communities across Illinois,” Pritzker said.
That’s not good enough. And it certainly shouldn’t quell distrust spurred by Pritzker’s disrespect of the black community.
The black politicians who stand by him as he tries to court votes in their communities are problematic too. His supporters insist the man who spoke on that November 2008 wiretap doesn’t speak for the man courting the black vote today. That kind of blind party loyalty is further proof of the political disconnect between the old guard and today’s black millennial.
If the third of Democratic voters in Illinois who are black want to really see a Democratic Party that works for them, especially young folk, they need to oust power brokers who look the other way at transgressions from white allies. We need more of those African-American leaders who make people like Pritzker and Blago uncomfortable.
We need more people to fight back like Kina Collins, the Pritzker campaign worker who resigned after hearing the tape and explained herself on Facebook.
“I am no longer a part of the JB Pritzker for Governor campaign. . . . I will not stand by a candidate who feels that way about Black folks,” she wrote. “Character is not what you do when the whole world is watching, character is what you do when no one is watching. I think we can continue to contribute to the problematic fabric of politics especially in IL or we can take a stand.”
This isn’t just a local problem. It’s what’s wrong with the national Democratic Party led by influential white fund-raisers, Mayor Rahm Emanuel among them.
African-Americans are the most loyal bloc in the Democratic Party. Look no further than the push to keep the bigot and alleged child molester Roy Moore from winning one of Alabama's U.S. Senate seats. In the December election for the seat, 98 percent of black women voters and 93 percent of black men voters cast ballots for Moore's opponent, a Democrat named Doug Jones. In comparison, 34 percent of white women and 26 percent of white men voted for Jones. Moore would likely be in the U.S. Senate today if it wasn’t for African-American voters, especially black women. White politicians in the Democratic Party rely on black voters to put them in power, but the black community hasn’t seen a commitment from the party proportionate to our contributions.
In Illinois, like most other states, governor has always been a job for white men only. No people of color have successfully run for the office. And that won’t change this year. The current field of candidates includes eight contenders. Six are white men. Sure, Tio Hardiman is black. But everybody knows he’s got no shot.
If a serious African-American contender ran for governor here they would be up against conservative downstate voters who overwhelmingly voted for Trump, and have to deal with people in their own party who talk like Pritzker and Blago on that call the FBI intercepted.
When I first heard the audio recording there was something that struck a chord in me, something I know I’m not alone in feeling.
Beyond the coded language, as the two men brainstorm ways to mitigate or eschew black political power, a smug and mocking tone permeates the conversation.
It’s like they’re both in on some joke.
It feels like one of them is about to laugh and say, “You know how niggers are.”