• Don Bierman
  • In a 1983 debate with Mayor Jane Byrne and Cook County state’s attorney Richard M. Daley, Harold Washington called attention to the enormous black unemployment rate in Chicago, a problem that continues more than 30 years later.

Tonight at 7 PM, WTTW will televise the last of the three mayoral runoff debates between incumbent Rahm Emanuel and Cook County commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia. The Tribune says moderator Phil Ponce should focus the debate on “the only question that matters”—how to fix the city’s finances. He should force the candidates beyond their usual talking points and accept only very specific answers, the Trib asserts.

In late January 1983, WTTW hosted a mayoral debate in the memorable Democratic primary campaign for mayor between incumbent Jane Byrne, Cook County state’s attorney Richard M. Daley, and Congressman Harold Washington. Byrne sought to frame the campaign the way the Trib sees today’s: “The economic life in this city is the real issue in this election,” she said that night.

But Washington saw another crucial issue: racial inequality. More than 200,000 Chicagoans were “suffering the degradation of unemployment,” he noted in his opening statement, and blacks were suffering it most of all: the citywide unemployment rate was 11.7 percent in 1982, but, as Washington pointed out, for Hispanics it was 17.8 percent, and for blacks it was 20.7 percent.

Washington said that Byrne had offered Chicago’s poor and unemployed “hams, thermal underwear, fireworks, lighted bridges, and a winterfest. For the rest of us, she has offered an obscene $10 million campaign fund, aimed at brainwashing Chicago into forgetting the real Jane Byrne, and believing that the Madison Avenue creation appearing in all those television ads is the real Jane Byrne who’s been running this city.”

More than three decades later, Mayor Emanuel’s $30-million-plus campaign fund has made it easy for him to spread the rosy news about the city’s revival under his leadership. “In the past four years, unemployment has fallen by more than a third and 73,000 new jobs have been created in Chicago—the largest gains in employment of any major city in the country,” one of his press releases boasts.

The Chicago Defender, the city’s black-owned newspaper, apparently liked even the wording of that boast; in its endorsement of Emanuel, it observed that “In the past four years, unemployment has fallen by more than a third and 73,000 new jobs have been created in Chicago—the largest gains in employment of any major city in the country.”

Like a city’s crime rate, a city’s unemployment rate depends on larger forces, as mayors are quick to point out when the numbers are bad. Unemployment in Chicago has indeed declined during Emanuel’s tenure—as it has in Illinois and nationwide.

But the unemployment gap between black Chicagoans and everyone else remains broad, and it may in fact be growing. In 2010, the year before Emanuel took office, unemployment among white Chicagoans was 9.5 percent; in 2013 it had dropped to 7.7 percent. (The racial breakdown for 2014 is not yet available from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.) For Hispanics, the unemployment rate also declined, from 12.9 percent in 2010 to 11.8 percent in 2013.

For African-Americans, however, the unemployment rate climbed from 20.3 percent in 2010 to 22.1 percent in 2013. African-Americans in Chicago are “suffering the degradation of unemployment” at a rate almost triple that for whites—more than triple, when the number of “discouraged” workers, who have left the labor force altogether, are factored in. The black unemployment rate in Chicago in 2013 was worse than it was when Harold Washington denounced it 30 years ago.

In a city that truly cared about equality, the vast and persistent disparity between black Chicagoans and other Chicagoans, on this and other measures—graduation rates, mortality rates, crime rates—might be considered “the only question that matters.”

Instead, racial disparities have been nearly ignored in this mayoral campaign. There has been much talk about Chicago being “two cities,” but little acknowledgement, from either candidate, that the inequality is chiefly between African-American Chicagoans and other Chicagoans.

In the 1983 campaign, Washington could afford to focus on the particular problems of black Chicagoans because he was running against two white candidates who were likely to (and did) split the white vote. And even so, he picked his spots.

The dynamics are different for Garcia: he needs broad support from whites, blacks, and Latinos. Perhaps that’s why he’s mainly framed Chicago’s split as being between the neighborhoods and downtown, when the greater gap is between black neighborhoods and most everywhere else.

Decades of racist policies and practices created this gulf. The harm has been compounded, and continues to be, by the city’s relentless, pronounced segregation, and that harm won’t be quickly remedied. Our financial problems, likewise, are the product of years of errant policies and will take years to solve. The Tribune is right to say that the sooner we face the music on financial policies, the better. But why not the same attitude about segregation?

With all his campaign cash, and with the benefits of incumbency, Emanuel can afford to speak frankly about segregation. He can afford to, but he hasn’t. He’s as full of platitudes about segregation as Garcia is about finances.

At a forum last week at Chicago State University, the mayor was asked what he’s learned about Chicago’s African-Americans in his four years as mayor. He said he’s learned that “like everybody else, they love their city, and they’re passionate about it.” Then he was asked about segregation. He could have pledged to provide low-income housing in Jefferson Park, Norwood Park, and Lincoln Park. He could have promised to crack down on housing discrimination on the northwest side. Instead, he said that Chicagoans need to “find our bonds of commonality,” and that his responsibility as mayor was “to help people find that common ground together.”

As the mayor and the Tribune like to chide Garcia regarding his vague financial ideas, that’s not a plan. And it’s well past time for one.