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One's Own Sort

Making race the basis of citizenship

Illinois Times

April 30, 1987

When a federal judge ruled that at-large voting under Springfield's commission government denied African Americans their voting rights, the question arose: How to fix it? Various proposals were offered; all required a switch to more localized system of representation, specifically wards whose boundaries roughly corresponded to the city's racial residential patterns.


The debate, such as it was, inspired this righteous rant. As I write, Springfield has had a ward-based government for more than 30 years, and the only problem it solved was how to comply with the terms of the federal suit that inspired it. City government is more representative in a narrow sense, but in most other ways worse than it was.

The original has been here lightly edited to indulge more recent sensibilities about sex and race and to clarify points left muddled in the rush to deadline.

See also Legislative Little Mes.


I haven’t followed the debate as carefully as perhaps I ought—I’ve been building birdhouses, which keeps me in the garage a lot—but I recall that one of the contended points between the plaintiffs, the city council, and Judge Baker’s court in the voting rights suit is whether a newly constituted city council should be made to contain ten aldermen or twenty.


Ten would do, I guess, but twenty would be more consistent with a developing trend which that suit will probably hasten in Springfield, a trend which will someday give the capital city a city council of 50,000 members or so. The exact number, of course, will be limited by how many free parking spaces can be found within a half-block of the municipal building or however many adults of voting age may still be living here.


The case for such a carnival-like expansion is implicit in the proposals for a new city government. Whatever its ultimate form, that new government will make race an explicit criterion for representation. The gerrymandering of ward boundaries under the various proposed plans are intended to concentrate the black vote in effective ward majorities to guarantee election of a black alderperson from at least one ward. (Gerrymandering maps? Race-based quotos? In the federal courts, two wrongs often make a right.)


The assumption which underlies such schemes—that a black person can only be represented by another black person—is pernicious on its face, if not actually racist. In any event it is richly contradicted by history. Black people on Chicago’s South Side have been represented at city hall by other black people for decades; that their interests were not materially advanced seems plain enough for even a political scientist to grasp.


Whatever disappointments may ensue in the new black wards, the official endorsement of race as a qualification for municipal office is an awkward precedent. M. A. Miller put the question nicely in an exasperated letter to the State Journal-Register several weeks ago. “Judge Harold Baker seems to say that the only way one can be represented is by one’s own sort,” she wrote. She proceeded, with more rigorous attention to cause-and-effect than did the judge, to insist on a tongue-in- cheek remedy: half of all elected city posts should be reserved for women.


Miller’s proposal is unlikely to sway the court; by the crude measures used in the local debate, African Americans have a superior claim to preferences under the law, since no black person has ever sat on the council, while at least one woman has. Miller did however, introduce some interesting questions about race, racism, and representativeness. Those questions have been largely absent from a public debate that is conducted in hopelessly—there is no other way to put it—black- and-white terms, but then a debate that relies on a lawyer, a politician, and a chain of newspaper editors could be expected to lack a certain nuance.


For example, the present city council was widely described as an unchanging, unchangeable bastion of the white establishment. That same council is historically unique for the appearance on it of ethnic minorities (Italian-Americans, foreign-born) and religious groups (Roman Catholics) who were themselves victims of political discrimination not many years past. Those hapless servants might even be offered as evidence of admittedly slow (it took exactly fifty years for the first Italian American to win a seat on the council) but steady opening of the local electoral process. That point is largely irrelevant in the face of the plaintiffs’ impatience.


A more troubling error was the assertion that the present city council, being white, is inherently more attentive to the interests of other white people than to those of people of color because of their whiteness. The last time I heard this argument made in my hearing it came from a third-grader, who was quickly corrected by her teacher who later wondered out loud where kids pick up such dumb ideas.


These particular white men share my gender and my skin color, but they differ from me in every other crucial respect, from religion and neighborhood to school background and political preoccupations. True, the council in recent years (acting principally through the mayor’s office) has built new streets and sidewalks in my neighborhood, also installing new streetlights, parks, and tennis courts, but then I live in Pioneer Park where most of my neighbors are black, so I can hardly explain their generosity in terms of white solidarity.


On issues of relevance beyond my block, furthermore, I am unlikely to find a sympathetic ear at city hall, no matter what color that ear might be. I am an environmentalist the way some people are black. The council’s repeated failures over the years to deal constructively with such issues as recycling, energy efficiency, land use, municipal forestry, burning bans, and the like has left me despairing. Springfield city councils in general represent no one especially well except perhaps the business community. Of course they do not represent the interests of poor blacks. They don’t represent poor whites either. Or feminists. Or environmentalists. To the extent that holders of such minority views are submerged by the present at-large system of voting, they all may be said to be disenfranchised.


The objection will be made, and properly, that when environmentalists suffer the bigotry endured by black people they too will merit special consideration. My point is not that black grievances aren’t valid—although I do think them largely misplaced—but that the structural remedies proposed to ease them are flawed. I believe for example that an expanded city council, feared in some quarters as anarchistic, is in fact anachronistic, as I will try to explain.


The council’s failures to tend to my interests in terms I acknowledge as appropriate have little to do with conventional politics. (That’s part of the problem; conventional politics in Springfield is a matter of who gets what, not who does what.) Our disagreements derive from conflicts of broader values. Me and the city council, everybody else and Congress—the trend is evident everywhere. People are no longer voting party or even pocketbook. Instead they are using the vote to make what amounts to cultural assertions—the Right about religion and family, feminists about equal pay, the Left about defense, and so on. The result has been to realign politics along class lines. (To some extent this has always been true; the reform movement which led to the adoption of the commission government in Springfield in 1911 was essentially an expression of class values on the problem of government structure.)


Geography offers no trustworthy maps to these new realms. This is true even in the cozy confines of Springfield. Yes, class and income are related, as are income and place of residence, but the connections are not reliable. I can tell you with some assurance that any given house in Westchester contains a well-off family. I cannot tell you what kind of well-off family lives there. If that family is black, I probably have more in common with them than I do with the poor whites who live up my own street. The constituency to which I belong—literate, assertive of certain communal values over private ones, of modest income—is scattered all over town. There will never be a symphony ward or a mandatory recycling ward in Springfield the way there will be a rich ward or a black ward.

Of course, nearly everyone is a member of some disenfranchised minority or another. At what point, and on what evidence, are they entitled to structural redress? There is a priority of claim, here, obviously, but considered in the abstract—which is how judges and political scientists prefer to consider things—are we not compelled to honor Ms. Miller’s logic and someday install income, marital status, or religion as valid criteria for representation?


A ward system which has race as its implicit criterion is a lowest-level-of-analysis political system whose installation leaves the city ill-prepared to accommodate the new complexities of class politics. Further reforms seem inevitable. I see the new council augmented in time by at-large representatives of specific, sanctioned constituencies defined by issues or demographics—a feminist delegate to the council, in effect, joined in time by a divorced person’s delegate, an anti-vivisectionist, and so on. The flaw in the plan is obvious: people with wide-ranging or confused views would hear them echoed by perhaps dozens of council members, while the indifferent or the stupid might have only one or two allies there. The result would be a failure of representation in a new form.


Perfectly refined, a city government would represent each citizen with an alderman who perfectly matched that citizen’s ethnic, religious, social, economic, and political predilections. Each person would have to be his own alderman, in short, because nobody else would have the qualifications. ●




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Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.

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One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.

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The Encyclopedia of Chicago


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The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories  (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly. 

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Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order

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Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.

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