The Racist Problem | On Culture | Chicago Reader

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The Racist Problem

Historian Paul Street says injustice is an institution in Chicago.


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Three years ago the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations published Global Chicago, a collection of essays by local leaders and Chicago Tribune writers that painted a glowing picture of a city robust and cosmopolitan enough to hold its own with the likes of London and New York. But independent scholar Paul Street says his book, Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis: A Living Black Chicago History (published this summer by Rowman & Littlefield), demonstrates what Global Chicago left out: that the city continues to be gripped by racism. Last week he hauled a boxful of copies up the stairs to the offices of In These Times for a lecture to that effect, sponsored by Open University of the Left. "I'm from Chicago, and I love Chicago," he declared. "But our great city rests on social injustice." There were a mere dozen people in the audience, none black.

Street, a historian who served as vice president and research director for the Chicago Urban League from 2000 to 2005, has a machine-gun delivery and an arsenal of statistics, many drawn from a report he did for the Urban League three years ago, "Still Separate, Unequal: Race, Place, Policy and the State of Black Chicago." It got little media attention, he says, because it was belatedly released and barely promoted. But the data are compelling. After noting that his information was mostly based on the 2000 census and that some results would likely be worse today, he let them fly. Here's a sampling:

a Median black household income was just 58 percent of median white household income in the metro area.

a Twenty-five percent of black households were living on less than $15,000 annually, the comparable figure for whites was less than 10 percent.

a More than a third of black children lived in poverty, and 11 of the city's 15 poorest neighborhoods were at least 94 percent black.

a Blacks, who represent 15 percent of Illinois' population, accounted for 66 percent of state prisoners and more than 80 percent of those incarcerated for drug offenses.

a The top ten neighborhoods for HIV deaths and heart disease mortality were predominantly black.

a Blacks made up less than one percent of the partners in Chicago-area law firms and 2.6 percent of top corporate managers.

"The facts of inequality shouldn't be in dispute," Street says, but the causes are. The current tendency, even among some liberals, is to blame the victim. "We're in denial about racism," he maintains, "so busy patting ourselves on the back because we're willing to vote for Barack Obama that we think racism is dead." Street says overt bigotry, like that displayed during the 1983 Chicago mayoral race, has "largely been defeated." But he argues that covert racism abounds, entrenched in public institutions and practices, among them the underfunding of mostly black schools, hiring discrimination, exclusionary zoning and real estate lending, the destruction of public housing and resegregation of displaced residents (often to impoverished suburbs), and disproportionate policing, arrests, and incarcerations of blacks.

This "stealth" racism "does not necessarily involve individual white bigotry," Street says, and is sometimes conducted with the collaboration of African-Americans. He cites public figures like Bill Cosby, who epitomize and sometimes espouse the "Oprah effect," which Street describes as the illusion that racial obstacles have been eradicated and that success is simply a matter of individual effort.

Street doubts that a just society is possible under capitalism or without reparations that acknowledge and reverse the "windfall bestowed on sections of the white community by 'past' racist policies and practices." On this subject he paraphrases political scientist Roy L. Brooks: "Imagine a 300-year-long poker game with two players, one white and one black," Street says. The white player, who's been cheating the entire time, suddenly announces that from now on he'll play fair. "Great!" says the black player. "And what are you going to do with all those poker chips piled up on your side of the table?" It's a new game, the white player says, but "the chips will stay where they are."

Trading Places?

Retired Chicago Symphony Orchestra flutist Donald Peck notes in his new memoir, The Right Place, the Right Time!, that Daniel Barenboim, who was guest conductor for the CSO before he was hired as music director in 1991, was a different, more difficult person once his tenure began. By 2004, when it was announced that Barenboim would be leaving, there were numerous complaints about him: he didn't live in Chicago and was seldom around, didn't want to do a lot of schmoozing with donors or get chummy with the community, didn't care for administrative duties, sometimes chose works that were inaccessible, and could be, well, arrogant. At a town meeting the CSO held in early 2005 to gather input on what it should look for in a successor, people spoke up for someone the musicians would respect but also someone who'd be family, maybe an American. Leonard Slatkin was mentioned more than once.

That was two and a half lonely years ago. Now the CSO and its supporters are besotted with Riccardo Muti, onetime head of the Philadephia Orchestra and more recently La Scala's music director. After Muti did a series of heady dates here and a whirlwind tour of Europe with the CSO, local arts critics began demanding an official marriage--now, before he, like others considered for the job, slips away. If they get their way, the CSO will be wedded to a brilliant conductor who's unlikely to live here or be around much, who probably won't want to get chummy with the community or handle administrative duties, who is said to disdain experimental or populist work, and who can be, well, imperious. Muti's harshest critics have referred to him as a tyrant. But CSO musicians, fresh from the European adventure, say on the contrary, it was a peak experience.

Muti, who abandoned a Royal Opera performance at Covent Garden a few years ago because of changes the Brits made to the set, was forced out at La Scala in 2005 after allegedly engineering the dismissal of general manager Carlo Fontana. The La Scala musicians voted almost unanimously to side with Fontana. But things are complicated in Italy, where the opera house is as politicized as city hall: the musicians were allied with the left, Muti reportedly had more support from the right. So we can't really know what it all meant--and besides, he looks wonderful. Meanwhile La Scala will be making do with Barenboim, who, though not technically taking over Muti's job, signed on as "maestro scaligero" there last year.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Paul Street photo by Lloyd DeGrane.

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