Black pols stuck in the Democratic machine’s spin cycle explain themselves | Feature | Chicago Reader

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Black pols stuck in the Democratic machine’s spin cycle explain themselves

Here's why they're still standing behind J.B. Pritzker.


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Now that I've cleared my throat, let me explain: I was torn about spelling out in print all six letters of the hate-filled N-word. I don't like saying it in mixed company. That means around white people, even at rap concerts.

But I needed your attention. I had to relate the sinking feeling in my gut-one that a lot of African-Americans share-that doubled me over when I heard the coded language and racial subtext of billionaire J.B. Pritzker's conversation with now-jailed former governor Rod Blagojevich about appointing Barack Obama's replacement in the U.S. Senate.

The sting of a hate-filled word alone isn't enough to parse the clusterfuck of race and politics that is Pritzker's "African-American thing" scandal, and, broadly speaking, business as usual.

That's why I called out the African-American elected officials who accepted Pritzker's apology and still back him in the Democratic gubernatorial primary. To me, a black millennial, their seeming willingness to consider the way Pritzker spoke about race issues as displaying an acceptable level of racism is part of the problem too.

They stood behind Pritzker and offered forgiveness that suggests to a lot of people-white people, that is-that they too should get a pass for sneaky racism so long as they don't speak in vicious racial slurs. There are a lot of people-African-Americans and people of color across this city-who don't forgive him. Some fear electing Pritzker is trading one racially insensitive billionaire governor for another. If you haven't heard from those people, it's because their opinions don't matter much to the Democratic machine or the mainstream media.

That said, Pritzker's political apologists deserve a chance to explain why they think African-Americans should see Pritzker as a friend to their communities.

So I called them. Cook County Board president Toni Preckwinkle and secretary of state Jesse White never got back to me. And that's a shame. Those two African-American leaders hold powerful posts and wield loads of influence in government and in our communities. They shouldn't dodge this issue and hope it goes away.

The black politicians supporting Pritzker that did talk to me all shared a common message: We should judge Pritzker's history and entire person, not words from a decade-old private conversation. They touted him as the Democrats' best chance to beat Governor Bruce Rauner. They said that Pritzker wouldn't abandon them once the polls close, and would stay engaged through his tenure with economic development, income inequality, crime, and other issues plaguing many African-American neighborhoods.

Alderman Michael Scott (24th), who represents troubled parts of the west side, said he's "disappointed in the words that J.B. said" before explaining why he disagreed with my take on the whole mess.

"He understands that, and he'll try to do better," Scott said. "But by no means do I think he meant it as a sneak dis or to call somebody the N-word. I just think that's an unfair categorization."

Alderman Emma Mitts (37th), another west-side alderman, said, "I would use this incident to make sure he even does more for blacks."

"So whereas he was on tape saying he wanted one-we think this one is good-I want to show him we have a lot of good blacks in our community," Mitts said.

She told me she confronted Pritzker about how he spoke about black politicians, and he apologized to her and promised to do better.

"I can tell you I felt he was remorseful. We're not perfect, and we make mistakes. Thank God we're still able to correct those mistakes while we're here, and learn from them," she said.

Alderman Roderick Sawyer (Sixth),
the south-sider who leads the City Council Black Caucus, described Pritzker as using "uncomfortable language" that falls short of being racist.

Sawyer, the son of Chicago's last black mayor, said there was something off about the tone of the conversation, "because of that undertone white people talk with when they talk about other races."

"It sounds a little condescending," he said. "That's what I got from [the call]. I didn't like it, what I heard, but the underlying conversation is can whoever the governor appoints for the U.S. Senate position be elected come that next special election. As elected officials, when we have vacancies, we sometimes talk about replacing a woman with a woman, an African-American with an African-American, a Polish guy with a Polish guy, a Latino with a Latino. We go through these machinations and try to find the best fit."

The problem is, when you're talking about things like that, Sawyer said, "it might not come out the best way, especially behind closed doors."

Still, Sawyer stands by Pritzker.

"I will say that I think he became enlightened and more sensitive to the fact of how he speaks, particularly about somebody African-American," he said.

But Pritzker being sensitive to what words he says doesn't mean we know what he really thinks about African-Americans. Then again, the same goes for any politician. However, the difference is most politicians don't have wiretaps released with their problematic language just weeks before a closely contested primary as they make a hard push to court black voters.

Alderman Walter Burnett (27th), a protege of Jesse White's who represents gentrifying parts of the west side, said "this is nothing that African-Americans should be battling each other over."

"Everybody wants to race-bait and play on the African-American emotions, like we can't read between the lines and we don't know what's going on, and I think folks don't give us as much credit as they should, because we're not ignorant, or stupid," he said.

Burnett argued that Pritzker said White was the "least offensive" African-American politician qualified for the U.S. Senate and singled Emil Jones out as "crass" and not fit for the Senate "because he was trying to explain to the governor why he thought Jesse White might have been a better choice."

Alderman Anthony Beale (Ninth), who represents a poor, black part of the far south side and supports Chris Kennedy for governor, has a different take. He said the wiretapped conversation between Pritzker and Blago reveals a lot about the relationship African-American leaders and voters have with the Democratic establishment.

"Every election, you have everyone fighting for the African-American vote, because the African-American vote is a key bloc of votes that everybody tries to cater to," Beale said. "But after they come into the community and make all these false promises, nothing seems to change. We don't get the attention our votes are dictating we should get."

Beale thinks that history will repeat itself with Pritzker.

While I was talking with Burnett about how uncomfortable I felt watching him and other black politicians standing behind Pritzker as he apologized outside a soul food restaurant on the west side, he interrupted me: "You sound like a young guy.

"Maybe young people feel that way. Those of us who are older and know better. We know how people talk," he said. "We're not that thin-skulled to take all this stuff personal."

Damn, Walter. Give African-American millennials some credit. We have to deal with all kinds of symbolic attacks on blackness because, as it was in the old guard's day and before them, blackness remains under assault on so many fronts. Our discontent is about much more than language and microagressions.

Burnett's jab hints at the black generational divide in politics. We have different expectations than our elders do when it comes to our relationship with political parties and white-led institutions. We have different visions of what it would look like to repair the multigenerational effects of slavery and white supremacy, and disagreements over whether we can get there by working incrementally within the traditional confines of the Democratic Party.

Sure, young African-Americans like me should be thankful to the old guard of black leadership. Their ongoing march through the harrowing world of politics and race has yielded insights and victories that my generation can learn from and build on.

But when we hear black politicians admit all the ways the needle hasn't moved forward in their lifetimes despite their devotion to the establishment, we ponder what measure of change we can squeeze out of this society given the current system.

It makes me wonder what my generation should do about politicians-in Chicago and around the country-who are stuck inside political machines that only want to control them.

If we must oust them to redefine what political power looks like on our own terms, so be it.   v

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