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Sunday, May 01, 2011  

A One-Editorial Guide to Why the Tribune Must Be Mocked

The awfulness of Sunday's editorial on the Daley II era is such that I can't in good conscience consign it to the Tribune Editorial Translator. It's not funny to write with this kind of vicious obtuseness about events the Tribune has witnessed up close and even tried to influence.

First there's the way they talk about racial politics in 1989 Chicago. "The ceremony at Orchestra Hall acknowledged the race-based schism that for roughly a decade had cleaved city politics." Let's break this down a little bit. Leaving aside the not-quite-racially-neutral location of the inaugural, there is the annoying and recurring tendency of the Tribune to refer to Chicago's racial strife without any subjects. What "cleaved city politics"? Well, a "schism" (later on it's a "chasm" and "ugly tensions"). Who or what was at fault? Well, everyone and no one. It was a matter of "tribal conflict," as the penultimate sentence of the editorial says.

This has become the official story in Chicago, in large part because the Tribune has worked hard to make it so. But it is unduly vague. For one thing, city politics had been characterized by racial tension for longer than a decade before 1989. White politicians deliberately kept Chicago's black and Latino populations under-represented in the city council. The previous Mayor Daley had exerted effective control over most of the city's small black council caucus, thanks to patronage jobs. And that Mayor Daley was rather unabashedly committed to preserving the ethnic integrity of white neighborhoods, while would-be black homeowners were robbed blind by unscrupulous property brokers and penned up in unimprovable ghettos by bank redlining.

This was a grave injustice perpetrated upon black and Latino Chicago by white Chicago and its political representatives, and black and Latino Chicagoans were pissed off about it. It was a appalling state of affairs created and exacerbated by people with names and policies that were written down. It was not some impersonal "schism" that "cleaved" local politics as if by plate tectonics.

Moreover, the Tribune's lily-livered rhetoric leaves the impression that Harold Washington and his black supporters were equally culpable (as much as anyone was) for this state of affairs. But in fact Washington stumped all over white Chicago for votes and bent over backward to avoid even the appearance of favoritism to black Chicago. Black Chicagoans were willing to vote for the elder Daley, eager to vote for Jane Byrne in 1979, and content to vote for white candidates at the county, state, and federal levels. It was white Chicagoans who showed purely tribal instincts when it came to the voting booth (I mean, Bernie freaking Epton) and white aldermen who formed a racial bloc when confronted with a black mayor who wanted to divide resources more equitably around the city.

That's pretty much beyond serious dispute if not editorial obfuscation. And the absence of this history from the editorial's lead-in marks the rest of the assessment. "He was impatient to elevate public education--and angry when his team found carpenters hand-building furniture for educrats while school buildings collapsed." Daley's record as an educational reformer is interesting and deserving of its own lengthy consideration. What the Tribune chose to highlight--busting the chops of the bums nosing around at the public trough--is the sort of thing that turns their editorial crank but that has no bearing on the education received by the children, again mostly non-white, who have to deal with actual schools. How have schoolchildren fared under the Daley regime? How have his reforms distributed benefits and costs? The answers to these questions are complicated, to the point where no on can claim that this signature policy challenge has seen the kind of progress a strong mayor might be hoped to deliver.

Worse yet, they devote one sentence to noting and praising the "demolition of public housing high-rises that warehoused families in concentrations of poverty." When the story of Chicago's public housing is finally and definitively told, I hope it is noted that the rationale by which Daley and the city's power brokers, white and black, rolled tens of thousands of black families out of the city and the only neighborhoods and social connections they had--and turned their former homes over to developers--were always phrased in terms of the best interests of the displaced people. What happened to these people? Where did they go? How are they faring? The Tribune doesn't know and the Tribune doesn't care. I remember well the fear and guilt that the Stateway, Robert Taylor, and Cabrini complexes provoked (I even wrote about it). I don't walk around the new South Side wondering how this big experiment has worked out for the people who were there. But that's what newspapers are supposed to be for.

Lastly, they settle on clout hiring as the big sore point in Daley's tenure (along with generous union contracts, of course). Not that this isn't a really bad thing. But if you want to find corruption in Chicago politics, follow the contracts, not the payrolls. There's a lot to say about this, but the Tribune ain't saying it. "He spent too much money fulfilling proud ambitions for his city," they say, but they don't name these vanities because the Trib mostly backed him on them.

There's a lot of focus on the consequences of things mayors can't control: national economic trends, long-term demographic changes that drive things like crime rates. But what about those things that a mayor can do? How did the schools fare under Daley? Or the CTA? Is city government run more fairly and professionally than it was in 1989? What about all the TIFs and the leasing of public assets? Whoever wrote this editorial should be embarrassed at its vagueness and triviality. I don't presume to have all the answers on these questions, which is why every now and then I bother to read a paper--to learn something I might not have heard a thousand times before. The well-heeled, insulated, and influential in Chicago have the luxury of expecting too much of a mayor, and thereby end up expecting too little.

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posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 8:14 PM
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