The spacious offices of the Chicago Commission on Human Relations, in the lovely old art deco building that formerly housed the Kraft Company on the near north side, have been repainted, recarpeted, and partially refurbished. Some of the executive offices even sport elegant rugs and plants. But as if to deny his role as a bureaucrat, the chairman, Clarence Wood, works at a banquet-size folding table in a nearly barren office, and the chair on which I sat to interview him had lost its arm pads. One of these days, Wood says, he’ll buy some appropriate furniture.
Until last May, the Commission on Human Relations was a moribund little agency that had been ignored for years. It had a staff of eight and a budget of $1.15 million and little power to carry out the task of combating discrimination for which it had been founded in 1947.
Today the commission has a new chairman and deputy chairman, a staff of 70, a budget of over $3 million, and an array of powers that makes it one of the strongest municipal human rights offices in the country. Its powers exceed those of equivalent Illinois and federal agencies.
The dramatic alteration of the CHR constitutes what might be Mayor Richard M. Daley’s only truly significant act of political leadership in his first term. With his human rights ordinance, which last March passed the City Council with only 13 dissenting votes, Mayor Daley put Chicago on notice that discrimination of any kind would no longer be tolerated. The commission now has the power to subpoena the accused, to conduct its own adjudication process, and to award sizable damages to victims of discrimination. Paula Ellenbrick of New York City’s Lambda Legal and Educational Fund, which tracks rights organizations, says, “Chicago’s new ordinance ranks among the strongest in the country and has the broadest protections. Only New York has the same powers, but it is not as broad in its protections.”
Whether the mayor’s motive was to end discrimination or, as some critics say, primarily to court the votes of minorities and liberals, the effect of the legislation is clear: the commission has broad powers to act against all forms of discrimination and a staff large enough to carry out the work.
That, at least, is one effect of the legislation. Another is more dubious. The mayor has been relieved of the need to deal directly with a cluster of rights groups that once operated in his name. These groups have been cut down to size, and if they have anything to say to the mayor now, they have to say it through Clarence Wood.
There is a tap on the door of Constance Bauer, second in command at the CHR. Invited to come in, Kelly Sander, a five-year CHR investigator, stands in the doorway and says jubilantly, “The judge gave that racist 90 days in the House of Corrections.” Bauer is pleased, too, though she can’t share the joy Sander is clearly feeling at this moment. Bauer sits in her office and administers the day-to-day work of CHR; she hadn’t been out in the neighborhood where the young white man chased a black woman who dared walk down the street in his turf. He chased her down the block, wielding a knife, shouting epithets at her. She ran into an ice cream store and pleaded to use the phone to call the police. The proprietor refused. The assailant was closing in when an off-duty policeman stepped in to save her.
Bauer hadn’t spent months making trips to the courthouse, where the young man’s lawyer tried to chill the case by repeatedly postponing it. Bauer hadn’t counseled the victim to hang on for the trial. Bauer hadn’t sat through a number of such trials that ended with the judge decreeing six months’ probation or a few hours of community service.
So this case was Sander’s victory. The judge gave the young man a lecture, she said, and told him, “Since neighborhoods are so important to you, I’m going to let you get acquainted with a new one, the House of Corrections.”
A crucial part of Sander’s work–and the work of the other 17 CHR investigators–is to provide the kind of assistance she gave to this victim of a hate crime. When such a crime is reported to the police, the police inform the CHR, which sends a four-person team to the scene to assist the victim and, when appropriate, go into the neighborhood to try to reduce tensions. Sander is accustomed to working with church and community groups and also to speaking directly with the people in the streets. Often she finds and wins the confidence of witnesses the police had missed. But her first duty is to help the victim recover from a racial assault. Sander keeps the victim informed about the progress of his or her case and tries to keep the victim from losing heart over the justice system’s infuriating delays. Showing support, Sander often appears in court herself.
A middle-aged Irish-Swedish woman, Sander was hired by the CHR five years ago specifically to do this job on the southwest side, which is where a majority of Chicago’s hate crimes occur. She could talk to the people, it was felt. She could win their confidence, help them to overcome their fears and hatreds, and contend with real estate blockbusters and other exploiters of those fears. The CHR’s staff doesn’t have many people like Sander: it is largely a minority staff–blacks, Hispanics, Asians, Jews, Arabs–and Sander is one of just three white non-Jewish investigators.
While Sander’s primary responsibilities over the past five years have been hate crimes, she and her fellow investigators also handled complaints of discrimination in employment, public accommodations, and credit buying. (Now they investigate housing complaints as well, but until the new ordinance went into effect those were handled by the Department of Housing.) But until the 1990 ordinance was passed, Sander and her colleagues had very modest success in getting satisfaction when it was due.
For instance, Cora Smith (not her real name) is a black woman who complained in 1988 that she had been fired unjustly because of her race. When Sander received the complaint, she asked to see the company’s records. Had they fired other people who were late three times? How many of their white employees had been late several times and not been fired? Was there an employee manual that stated that three tardies would bring dismissal?
But as always, Sander had to depend on the company’s willingness to cooperate. She could not make it do anything. A fair number of companies were cooperative but many were not, and when they weren’t Sander could not proceed. In Cora Smith’s case, the company agreed reluctantly that it might have been too hasty in dismissing her. So the company gave Smith two weeks’ severance and a promise of a good recommendation.
Because they were able to do so little to right the wrongs they encountered every day, and because they were all but ignored by the city government, the staff were filled, says Clarence Wood, “with unfocused anger. I inherited a great group of people here, but they were so angry that they couldn’t organize themselves, make any plans for any action.” There was, he says, a minimum of efficiency in the office; records were haphazardly kept, morale was low.
Now Sander and her colleagues are playing with new rules. If a company (or landlord, or realtor, or whoever) does not comply with a request for information, it can be subpoenaed. And a wrongdoer who does not voluntarily negotiate can be forced to. These negotiations now involve a professional mediator who is empowered to make sizable financial awards. And if a wrongdoer refuses to pay, the CHR legal department can set up a formal hearing that has the status of a court trial, with the victim provided a lawyer without cost.
Victims of hate crimes are encouraged by the CHR to bring civil suits against their attackers. Constance Bauer has found lawyers with the American Jewish Congress and Chicago Lawyers for Civil Rights who will represent the victims. One such suit was recently settled with an award of $300,000.
While the CHR’s investigators are responding to complaints of discrimination, Gwen Rattliff and her colleagues in the education and intergroup relations program try to stop fires in the community before they start. Rattliff goes into the schools and gives workshops designed to counteract the biases kids learn at home. At the start of each school year, the department sends letters to principals offering the workshops. Rattliff gets lots of requests.
Rattliff is doing many more workshops than in years past. The program is better known in the schools and its reputation has improved, changes that happen when the size of a staff is quadrupled. The number of people working in community activities and in the schools was three in 1989; now it’s 12. Rattliff says, “In the past, there was a lot of confusion. There was no direction, no outreach. Now we have real direction and we are involved in the community and getting our message out there.”
Getting the message out there before trouble hits is perhaps the single most important task of the commission. But once violence occurs, the CHR is ready. There are CHR teams in place in every region of the city. To make those four-person teams even stronger, last year Wood sent out a mailing asking for volunteers who could be called on if things got hot. He got back 1,400 responses and selected ten people.
“When police commander Tom Ferry [who heads Neighborhood Relations] gets word there’s trouble, he calls me,” Wood says. “I roll out of bed, call my team, and they meet me immediately to go into action.”
The Human Relations Commission’s new powers are not the issue that divides opinion on last year’s human rights ordinance. The bill reorganized the CHR, and in the view of critics it helped the mayor tighten his control over every aspect of city government.
Most of the 13 votes against the ordinance came from aldermen who did not want to see folded into the commission the seven freestanding rights commissions and committees formed while the late Harold Washington was mayor. The committees, created by executive order, and the commissions, established by City Council ordinance, were there to serve women, Latinos, gays and lesbians, Asian Americans, Arab Americans, veterans, and refugees and immigrants; they enjoyed direct access to the mayor, control over their own separate (if small) budgets, and complete autonomy within city government. The largest group, the Chicago Commission on Women, had a budget of $323,898 in 1989; the budget of the Commission on Latino Affairs was $276,268. The others received less. These commissions and committees chose their own members, wrote their own bylaws, hired their own staffs, and generally worked on their own, going to the mayor with their needs and complaints.
Under the March 1990 ordinance, all these independent bodies were reduced to “advisory councils” and merged into the Commission on Human Relations. An eighth advisory committee–on African affairs–was created. These advisory councils each have two staff people–a director and a secretary–with the director named by the mayor. The mayor also appoints the 21 members of each advisory council and its chair, although chairman Clarence Wood says that the mayor’s appointments are made at his recommendation. The individual budgets disappeared into the overall CHR budget; and while each council is free to set its own agenda its activities must be cleared by Wood. The council’s access to the mayor is through Wood.
Forty-sixth Ward Alderman Helen Shiller, always a Daley critic, voted against the ordinance. She said, “The commissions and committees were originally set up to bring into city government the voices of people who had been excluded. Even though they were appointed by the mayor with the recommendations of the groups, they had their own independence and could set their own agendas. The ordinance violated that mandate by putting them all together and taking away their independence. It represents either a lack of commitment or a lack of understanding of the needs of people to express their diversity and special needs. There’s no question that the reorganization was a way to centralize and control the actions of the various groups. It’s like creating a carpet that everything could be swept under.”
Notorious in Chicago as a group that demanded its own control and identity at all times, Shiller’s Uptown Peoples Coalition was never really a coalition. But history teaches that the most successful rights organizations have been either large and widely supported groups such as the NAACP, the Urban League, and NOW, headed by charismatic leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., or alliances such as the Coordinating Council of Community Organizations–which in the 60s in Chicago represented more than 20 organizations and forced itself upon the recalcitrant Mayor Richard J. Daley and the city’s business and professional community.
It is not surprising that some veterans of those early fights support the consolidation of the city’s civil rights groups. Kale Williams, executive director of the Leadership Council for Metropolitan Open Communities and a veteran of human rights campaigns for over 30 years, said with characteristic diplomacy, “I think there was a real concern [by the mayor] that the proliferation of separate commissions working directly in the mayor’s office was an unnecessary duplication of the work of the CHR and in fact a threat to the kind of coordination that’s needed in this area. There was a philosophy, which I support fully, that human rights was not something that could be divided in the way it was and that we would do better in the city in achieving rights for everyone if everyone was in the same forum and participating in the same educational and enforcement process.”
Perhaps if the mayor and his point man on policy, Frank Kruesi, had spoken with Williams’s grace to the commissioners and committee members upset by the planned consolidation, these people might have seen more wisdom in the plan. But Daley ignored the phone calls and letters requesting meetings, and Kruesi, who did finally meet several times with the groups’ representatives, talked about cost cutting and efficiency.
Attorney Larry Rolla, chairman of the former Mayor’s Committee on Gay and Lesbian Issues (COGLI) and now a member of the Advisory Council on Gay and Lesbian Issues, said, “At the last meeting with him in the Kraft Building, Kruesi let loose and said, ‘I’ve listened to what you said, but it doesn’t make any difference. This is the plan. We’re going with it.'” (Kruesi did not return any of the numerous calls I made to him daily over a period of a couple of weeks.)
Rolla described the process, lasting nearly a year, by which the ordinance was written and passed by the City Council: “Before the  elections, we gave Eugene Sawyer five nominations to fill openings on COGLI. He said he would defer making those appointments as a courtesy to Daley in case he was not elected. Daley wrote a campaign promise to us that he would make those nominations and would not change the way COGLI operated, that we would continue to have access. We had a community-based nominations process that he also promised he would not interfere with. We believed in and depended on those promises.”
After the election, Rolla continued, “Daley never acted on the nominations. We wrote letters but got no responses. I delivered those letters to the fifth floor myself. We never heard a word from him. Meanwhile, we were planning a community forum and sending out letters and leaflets. I was called into the mayor’s press office and told that I had to get approval from them, contrary to any previous arrangement, for any publicity or correspondence we sent out. I told them I couldn’t comply with that order until I had word direct from the mayor.”
Then came the CHR’s decision to honor the late alderman George Hagopian at the Human Relations Commission’s annual luncheon in November of ’89. Hagopian had just died; a champion of veterans’ rights, he was, however, anathema to gays, whom he’d called animals during the 1988 City Council debate over an ordinance extending human rights protections to gays and lesbians, as well as less controversial groups such as the disabled. Making matters much worse, four gay activists who’d successfully lobbied the council to pass the ordinance had already been chosen by the Human Relations Commission to be honored. Gays were furious and Rolla went to see Wood, who was brand-new in town and unfamiliar with Hagopian’s reputation.
“I indicated that if the award went through it would cause some serious problems,” said Rolla. “Wood told me that if I didn’t keep COGLI under control there would be problems in the future. For instance, he said he might not support the hate-crimes ordinance we were working on in the council. I told him, ‘If we’re going to play hardball, there’s going to be blood on the floor.'”
The luncheon was postponed, and Hagopian’s award was separated from the others.
Wood might not have known better, but gays believed that Mayor Daley, who’d OK’d Hagopian’s award, should have. “The community realized that we were not going to get any responses from the mayor,” Rolla remembered. “We called a forum to discuss the issue and invited the mayor. We didn’t know until he arrived whether he would show up. They ignored all our letters and calls. When he walked in the door, there was a lot of tension. He stayed long enough to listen to one of the six scheduled speakers and a brief statement from me. He left in the middle of a sentence I was making that was critical of him. No one thought he would walk out on me. After all, I was the chairman of his committee.”
The following August, said Rolla, “when we heard that the restructuring was being planned, we understood what had been going on. I went to the chairs of the other groups to tell them, but they didn’t believe it. They said it couldn’t happen. But our sources were impeccable. It finally became clear that they had been working on the ordinance since shortly after the election and no one had been told a word about it. Finally, the other groups joined us in trying to get some input. We worked together to forge some kind of compromise. There were meetings after meetings for three months. We called the whole thing the ‘autumn assault.’ It was quite clear, finally, that Kruesi’s meetings with us had all been a dodge. While he was meeting with us, he and Daley and Wood had also been meeting with their own selected people in our community to draw their support and separate them from COGLI. It was an attempt to divide and rule.”
Rolla agrees with Shiller and other critics that the mayor’s move to consolidate the various rights groups was an effort to control the dissident voices in the city. “He said, over and over again, ‘There’ll be no more confrontation in this city. We’ll work together.’ But, by their nature, communities tend to be combative, and I don’t think that’s unhealthy. This administration seems to see it as unhealthy. They prefer homogeneity. There is a tendency to want centralization and control. It’s kind of paternal, as if they thought they were controlling the antics of children. But these are communities, each with their own needs, perceptions, and constituencies. You can’t just give them all the same bylaws, as they have, and put them all in the same pot. The interesting thing is that I sense that there was more real cooperation among the various groups and more sensitivity to each other’s needs before than we have now.”
Representatives of the women’s and Latino commissions echo Rolla’s sentiments, if with their own reservations. Margarita Martinez, a real estate broker who was one of the most outspoken members of the Latino commission, now sits on the Advisory Council on Latino Affairs and doesn’t feel disenfranchised. But she remembers, “I was very vocal [protesting the new law] because we were left out of the process. We weren’t told anything. Here we would lose the advantages of being independent and having direct access to the mayor and we weren’t told a thing about it.”
Longtime political activist Charlotte Newfeld, a former vice chair of the women’s commission, said, “The new ordinance presented us with a difficult situation. On the one hand, it gave CHR new powers to go after crimes against minorities, but on the other hand, bureaucratically it took away our individual initiative. It destroyed all the grass-roots growth that we had and had it all coming from the top. When you stop being an autonomous commission and become an advisory council with limited powers, all that grass-roots organizing and individual initiative is cut off. We did some research. Where cities did what Daley did, which some did, it didn’t work, and they went back to the commission status. The fact is that every big city now has a women’s commission. Now we are tucked away.”
Newfeld scores consolidation as Daley’s move to “get rid of the pressure from minorities and women. He says, in effect, ‘let’s make it all clean and neat.'” Newfeld also recalls hearing Daley say, “Why should I have anyone in these councils who doesn’t support me?” She says she was told by Daley staffers, “Well, after all, you people come from Washington.” There was an attitude, Newfeld says, “that if Harold formed it, it can’t be all good. Daley needed to stomp on the things Harold did.”
But Newfeld insists it is not racism or sexism motivating Daley–just his being “a tight bureaucrat who doesn’t want to be bothered meeting with people.” The ordinance, she believes, resulted more from “a lack of understanding of the advocacy community and its needs than from an ulterior motive. To the administration,” she said, “the grass roots is ‘plant a tree.'”
Newfeld says the affected groups wrote a long string of amendments to the ordinance that were dismissed. These amendments were designed to preserve for themselves some semblance of access and independence–for example, the right to write their own bylaws, elect their own chairs, nominate their own members. Any of this might have helped calm the waters. But clearly, control was of first importance; no concessions were even considered.
Kruesi did write into the new ordinance a clause allowing members of the commissions and committees being abolished to serve out their terms on the new advisory councils. Some buried the hatchet and dug into these new roles. “We are still doing our thing the same way and now we have subpoena power and all the other powers,” says Margarita Martinez. Others made the switch but later dropped out. Bernice Miller, president of Harold Washington College and a member of the women’s commission, said she “lost heart after all that happened. I don’t know what an advisory council is and I don’t have time to spend with something that’s not going to produce results. As commissioners, we had clout and accomplished all kinds of things. What does it mean to anyone to say, ‘I’m a member of the advisory council’?”
Laurie Bittman of Action Network for Lesbian and Gay Issues moved from COGLI to the new Advisory Council on Gay and Lesbian Affairs. She says she’ll remain there to see what develops, but she doesn’t have much hope. “It’s like pulling teeth to get things done now,” she said. “The new members who dominate are the mayor’s appointments and tend to be very conservative.” The executive director of Chicago NOW, Sue Purrington, resigned in discouragement from the Women’s Advisory Council after a few months. But she says she may come to regret her decision. Daley appointed a new director of the council for whom Purrington has a lot of respect.
Judy Kohler, the new director of the Women’s Advisory Council, had come on board only two weeks before I interviewed her. Kohler, who like all the advisory council directors is earning $52,000 a year, was executive director of the Illinois Commission on the Status of Women until it was reconstituted in 1985 as a council under the Citizens Assembly–a state-funded umbrella group of seven rights organizations that serves the General Assembly as a research and advocacy office. Kohler, who now sits on the Citizens Assembly, says the Commission on the Status of Women became no less effective for being subordinated, and she sees no reason why her advisory council should accomplish less than the old Chicago Commission on Women.
In her first two weeks, Kohler did more than just get her feet wet, though reticence seems to characterize some of the other directors. The women’s council held two committee meetings, one on health and one on violence against women, and a full council meeting. Kohler also put together a reception in March for women’s organizations throughout the city; it was designed to “tell them we’re here, and that we want to work with them.” Kohler said she expects one of the primary activities of her council to be serving as liaison between the grass-roots groups and the city agencies, “so they can sit down and work together.”
In the fall of 1989, Clarence Wood, a 25-year veteran of the National Urban League who’d opened the league’s Birmingham, Alabama, office in 1964 and gone on to serve in every Urban League management position short of president, presented Mayor Daley with a 132-page Report on Race, Ethnic, and Religious Tensions in Chicago. A balding, very well fed man of 50, Wood had left the Urban League’s New York office to direct the Chicago Community Trust’s Human Relations Task Force. This report was what he’d accomplished. It said, “Blacks are not simply a national group whose status varies by degree from other ethnic or nationality groups [in Chicago]; they are a distinctive racial group upon whom political, social, and . . . economic restraints were applied.”
On reading the report, Daley called Wood in and asked him to do a study of the Commission on Human Relations and recommend ways to upgrade it. Then the mayor hired Wood to head up the CHR and help write the legislation needed to make the CHR what Wood said it should be.
In addition, Wood now presides over the Human Relations Foundation, which the Chicago Community Trust established last summer in response to its task force’s findings. The foundation awards grants to organizations doing human-relations work, funds research into racism, and attempts to influence government policy. “The two jobs allow me to look at the issues both from the private and public sectors and put together things that will work,” Wood says. And because he has standing in corporate Chicago as well as in the government sector, doors open more easily to him. “There is always a suspicion about the ability of a black in a top job,” he has observed. Wood takes a reduced salary from the city–$30,000–but overall he earns more than $100,000 a year.
Wood says he demanded complete independence before taking the CHR job. The mayor would hire the directors of the advisory councils on Wood’s recommendation. But Wood could fire them for poor performance, and he would hire and fire all other employees. Unlike other city department heads, he could issue press releases and other printed material without the approval of the mayor’s press secretary. Most importantly, Wood says, “I work for the mayor, no matter what anyone else in the city has to say. I’m not going to be negotiating a response to prejudice for some political purpose.”
What about the mayor’s political purposes? Wood responded, “The mayor has never called me to raise a question about the way we’re doing things, and I’ll tell you we’ve been in a lot of places that maybe city government would have preferred we not be. I think the release of our hate-crimes report in the midst of the mayor’s election campaign–a report that said that hate crimes were up last year–might have caused some problems. The mayor didn’t have to walk up on that platform with us and stand there before the press and approve the report. He was white and running for election. I think that was a helluva thing to do. And he didn’t counter my criticism of the press’s racist handling of the west side. It couldn’t have been an easy thing for him to have one of his people do that in the midst of an election.
“For that matter, he didn’t have to respond to that task-force report on racial tensions. If I’d been mayor of this city, Rich Daley, white, with all his power, I don’t know if I would have had his response. He didn’t know me or anything about me, really. I think he was willing to take me because the Community Trust and the corporate leadership hired me. It was a reach to do something about racial tensions in this city. It’s true that I looked a little bit safe because of who was behind me, but he was still taking a risk. I came from the Urban League, not from the corporate world. Hiring me, pushing through that ordinance for which I was largely responsible, was a risk, but it was obviously an attempt to do something no one else had done in this city.”
Asked whether he thinks Daley’s motive might have been to curb the antidiscrimination forces in the city, Wood asks back, “Where are they? Who are they? I don’t know of any antidiscrimination elements in this city. Every time we’ve had an incident in this town I’ve been very lonely. I speak out on an incident and I don’t see anybody else beside me. If you’re telling me that there would have been a stronger voice in the city had Daley not put me here, I want to know where it is. When I’ve spoken out against synagogues being defaced or against the cross burning on the southwest side, all the agencies that would have been with me in other cities weren’t there. I didn’t see it when I got here. I don’t see it now. The mayor had nothing to control and he sure isn’t controlling me.”
What about the possibility that Daley was courting the black vote by strengthening the hand of the commission and hiring someone of Wood’s credentials to run it? “I’m not cynical enough to think he did those things just to get the African American vote. I may be naive, but it doesn’t strike me that way. I just think he wanted to do something.” The real test of Daley’s commitment, Wood says, will come with the 1992 budget. When Wood submitted his original 1990 budget to the mayor in March, it called for 32 staff positions. By May he’d filled all those slots. When the actual city budget came down last December, CHR was short 12 positions. Instead of trimming his staff, Wood went to the mayor and said, “I need these people to do the job.” The mayor acquiesced. “He told his people to make it happen and it did.”
But those 12 workers are paid as free-lancers and enjoy no benefits or job security. Wood says a measure of Daley’s convictions will be the 1992 budget–where Wood hopes to find those 12 jobs restored. “They are absolutely necessary,” Wood says. “I won’t ask for any more staff, but we have to have this minimum to do the job. And I want them in the budget, not out there on vouchers.” What will he do if the 1992 budget comes down without the 12 positions? Wood says he is not sure.
Since the 1979 Shakman decree, mayors have hired off-budget to put their cronies into jobs for which they were not accountable to the courts. “I know all about that kind of thing in Chicago,” said Wood, “but you can rest assured that isn’t the reason for the vouchered jobs. I hired all those people myself. They came off the city’s personnel lists. And the only person in this office who I personally went to bat for was Angela Dutt [Wood’s press officer], who had quit and then wanted to come back and I made it possible. I’m sure that some people out there in the African American community are not happy with me. They probably expected me to make some political appointments. But I wanted a professional staff.”
Wood didn’t get everything he wanted from the mayor. He wanted the various rights commissions and committees abolished. But the mayor retained them, if in a considerably reduced form. To have eliminated them altogether might have been too politically expensive. “I understand that,” Wood says. What he wanted was one strong agency reflecting the needs and rights of all the separate constituencies, he says. “I would have made sure that the staff had representatives of every group and that they used themselves to work with the organizations of all the communities to coalesce to do the job.”
And in fact, each of the various communities is represented on the staff.
Wood is convinced that the independent commissions and committees were counterproductive to the mission of his agency. “What we have done since the Civil Rights Bill of 1964,” he said, “is to allow communities who didn’t want to deal with the primary issue of racism to create tribal responses that balkanize us in our capacity to make a universal response to the issue that underlies all discrimination, bigotry, and prejudice–which is racism. It is the public-evidenced issue from which all exclusion flows in this nation. What we do now to remedy problems is do it in the name of one or another group instead of in the name of humanity. We don’t do it in the name of righting the wrongs of a society that prevents people from advancing on the basis of merit. I think we have to come to grips with the balkanization; we have to have a unified approach to the eradication of all the wrongs that were perpetuated. With this balkanization, we are feeding the notion that some are still inferior and I won’t buy that.”
The balkanization of which Wood speaks is the ironic consequence of a civil rights movement from whose leadership women were largely excluded. Taking up the cry of “free at last!” for themselves, women created their own movement. And then came the gay and lesbian rights movement and nationalist movements such as those for Latinos and Asians. But Wood insists that these must engage the issue that underlies their own problems–racism. “The laws that were designed to keep all these groups from taking their rightful place are the laws designed to keep African-Americans out. We need to acknowledge that. When African Americans begin to penetrate the glass ceiling, everyone will.”
Wood says that the African American protest movement bogged down in the early 70s. “When I see a cross burned in Chicago in 1990, I understand people’s anger and cynicism,” he said, “but I also understand that part of our problem is that a whole lot of us let our cynicism and anger keep us from doing what we were required to do, to keep monitoring and fighting the racist system. We allowed ourselves to be diverted to poverty. If we had spent another ten years working to eradicate racism, we would have had a great deal more success on poverty than we’ve had. A great deal more success in education, jobs, housing, everything.”
But what about the claim that the agendas of the separate commissions and committees reflected wider needs than the CHR’s stated mission? And the claim that these groups have legitimate historic grievances of their own? “If there is a woman, a gay or lesbian, a Latino, or any other group who can convince me that any of the problems they encounter in this society are not covered by the mandate of this agency–the eradication of prejudice, bigotry, and discrimination–I’ll be glad to advance their cause. I am convinced and believe they can’t convince me otherwise that any of the problems they want to remedy are covered by the responsibilities of this agency–housing, jobs, credit, public accommodations, and all the rest.
“I think the motives of those opposed to the consolidation were honorable, but the simple fact is that we are stronger when we sit together as one than we are when we operate separately. There is a lot they can do, if they will stop bickering about what they were and begin to do some of the things they can do within the ordinance. But I am still waiting to have one council come to me to say, ‘We are prepared to do a research report that suggests bigotry and to mount a special campaign against it.’ They are unwilling to come to grips with the great strength of this ordinance because of the past. I want them to test me instead of complaining. Test me on making this ordinance work on their behalf. Nobody has. I’m allowing them their autonomy to work out their own programs. I don’t interfere. But I’m still waiting to hear from them.”
It is too early to judge the effectiveness of the rebuilt CHR. Two hundred complaints of discrimination–the number the CHR handled last year–in a city of nearly three million people is surely a drop in the bucket. Constance Bauer expects the number to rise to 300 next year as the word gets out that real remedies are now available.
Wood says, in his characteristically flamboyant style, “This is the most important agency in the city. The way this city works depends on how its minorities are treated and how they are permitted to function, how much access they have to education, jobs, housing, police protection, and so on. We can’t do everything but we can do a lot. People have to know that when they are discriminated against, whether they are black, Hispanic, Asian, Arab, Jewish, handicapped, gay or lesbian, women, married or single, parents, veterans, or welfare recipients”–he methodically counted them all off on his fingers–“they have a place to come. They don’t know that yet, and the extent to which we are successful in getting the message out and coping with discrimination is the extent to which this city will be unified and integrated, a decent place to live.”
And Wood said, “I don’t lose any sleep being friendly to anyone in city government to keep my job. And if the mayor thinks he can control me, well, let him test me.”
One of these days, that test is apt to come.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Paul L. Meredith.