• AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh
  • Asked about segregation in yesterday’s debate on Chicago Tonight, Mayor Emanuel noted that Chicago and Illinois voters have elected a lot of African-Americans.

Chicago’s most fundamental problem finally got a scrap of attention in the mayoral campaign last night. Fifty-one minutes into a one-hour debate on WTTW’s Chicago Tonight, moderator Phil Ponce asked the candidates why Chicago is still so segregated. The candidates then discussed the issue for two minutes and thirty-seven seconds. It was less time than red-light cameras got, but still.

As we show in our cover story this week, Chicago has 20 hypersegregated community areas on the south and west sides—neighborhoods that are each more than 90 percent black, and in which poverty, unemployment, crime, poor health, and struggling schools abound. Meantime, the city also has 27 community areas with less than 5 percent black residents—areas with far fewer of the problems that typify neighborhoods in which segregation has concentrated poverty.

Mayor Emanuel’s answer to Ponce’s question was fascinating. He began by pointing to “a history that has to do with housing and other policies here in the city of Chicago.”

Yes, historical policies helped create Chicago’s racial segregation. But more relevant today—and to Ponce’s question—are the current city policies that maintain segregation.

That includes the city’s reluctance to fight housing discrimination when African-Americans try to move into white neighborhoods. A recent study suggests such discrimination is still prevalent. The agency charged with combating it is the Commission on Human Relations—whose budget the mayor has slashed. There’s also the city’s unwillingness to ensure that affordable housing is available throughout Chicago.

Emanuel went on to say that “economic disparity is a big challenge, which is why I fought so hard to raise the minimum wage.”

Leaving aside his debatable claim that he’s fought hard to raise the minimum wage, it’s only peripherally related to segregation.

And then, in the most curious part of his answer, the mayor added: “If I could point to a positive: the state of Illinois and the city of Chicago have elected more African-Americans to the United States Senate, and statewide, and to Congress, than any other state. So while we have a bad past that we have to confront and be upfront about, we also have something to point to that’s in the direction of actually how to resolve this problem.”

Ponce didn’t ask Emanuel to explain.

Was the mayor saying that segregation has produced more African-American elected officials? That may be true: the city and the state have a long history of drawing racially segregated voting districts to protect incumbents of all races. I wrote about this back in 1981. If you’ll take a look at our cover from that story, you’ll notice, beneath a photo of a very youthful Mike Madigan, a map that looks an awful lot like the maps of segregation in our story this week.

The drawing of segregated districts is one reason minority elected officials have been reluctant to speak up about segregation. Segregation serves their interests—more so than the interests of their long-suffering constituents.

How are more African-American elected officials “something to point to that’s in the direction of actually how to resolve this problem,” as Emanuel asserted? They haven’t done anything to resolve it thus far. Moreover, does the mayor see segregation as a problem that African-Americans need to resolve, instead of all of us?

I’ve asked Emanuel’s campaign spokesman if the mayor will elaborate. I’ll let you know if he does.