To the editors:

Mayor Daley’s impressive commitment of power and resources to a revamped Commission on Human Relations merits the attention you gave it in Florence Levinsohn’s cover article of April 19. I was CHR’s Deputy Director, and periodically Interim Director, under mayors Washington, Sawyer and Daley, and I give Daley credit where it’s due. Now Chicagoans who are victimized by just about any kind of discrimination have a city agency to go to which has the power and resources to help them. If the worst thing anyone can say about that move is that Daley did it for political reasons, then that is praising with faint damns indeed.

My guess is that the move is political only in the sense that it might moderate criticism of Mayor Daley’s eliminating the separate commissions Mayor Washington created to represent women, Latinos, gays and lesbians and others, and Daley’s replacing them with advisory councils structurally folded into CHR. That action was bound to upset many community activists, but the change it represents is more complicated than it first appears. Contrary to what the article states, the Washington commissions did not enjoy “complete autonomy.” Only two commissions were separate departments and had separate budgets under Washington, three under Sawyer. The mayors chose their directors (from Commission recommendations). Most reported to the Mayor through an intermediary. With two staff at CHR for each new council, the ordinance gives three groups more staff than they had previously.

What was important about the Washington commissions is harder to measure and describe and therefore to compare: the representativeness and credibility of commission members; the freedom they felt to advocate for their constituencies; the openness with which the Mayor and his administration heard what they had to say; and what they accomplished as a result. I wish Levinsohn had compared the old commissions with new councils along these lines. Focusing on the commissions’ inherent political significance reinforces a view that many, including higher-ups in the Daley administration, held of the Washington commissions as essentially political. While much of their work had political implications (as does the work of many government agencies), in my experience they did a great deal of substantive and essentially nonpolitical work, both within the bureaucracy and within their communities.

The article does compare the new improved CHR to the old, preexpansion one, and in some ways that are inaccurate and need correction. Levinsohn states that CHR was “a moribund little agency” until last May. What isn’t directly mentioned is that most of the CHR programs she praises were created during the Washington administration by Washington’s extraordinary CHR Director, the late Al Raby. Those programs under Raby, long before 1989, built a solid record of accomplishment despite the small staff implementing them and the lack of publicity they received.

The aggressive program assisting bias crime victims which Levinsohn enthusiastically details was begun under Raby; CHR kept up victims’ courage, found witnesses and celebrated jail sentences then as now. The Bias Crime Report Levinsohn mentions (now the most extensive statistical detailing of this crime) was begun under Raby. The article makes it sound brand new, but in 1987 CHR began referring hate crime victims to groups like Chicago Lawyers for Civil Rights to bring civil suits against their attackers; and in 1986 CHR began using a network of community volunteers to work with staff in responding to bias crimes. It was under Raby that CHR’s once directionless education program began providing prejudice reduction workshops and getting rave reviews. In 1988, even in the absence of formal enforcement powers, CHR staff were able, through voluntary agreements, to gain for discrimination complainants over $300,000 in job recoupments and monetary awards. All these programs, and more that there isn’t space to mention, were implemented by a program staff of seven.

I guess Levinsohn gets some of her image of recent bad old days from CHR’s new leaders. Clarence Wood, CHR’s current Chairman, is quoted describing the staff he inherited as being “so angry that they couldn’t organize themselves, make any plans for any action,” functioning at “a minimum of efficiency” (one pictures an office full of people, hands clenched, frozen to their desks). When I left, there was certainly continuing frustration at our lack of power and staffing–and a lot of uncertainty anticipating the fifth change of director in 18 months–but still a dedicated staff was working hard and effectively. (And, apropos staffing, prior to last May, CHR had a staff of 22, not the 8 Levinsohn cites.) Having gone now to a staff of 70, and with formal enforcement powers, I don’t doubt that CHR is doing much more and better work than it was before.

Why did Mayor Washington, Chicago’s first Black mayor, appear to offer less support to city government’s only civil rights agency than does the current Mayor? The article contains several theses: Washington simply wanted to keep the bully pulpit of human rights to himself; he wanted to give voice to minorities through commissions; and he would have strengthened CHR if he’d had City Council support. A more important reason needs to be added: idealists in the Washington administration intended that all city departments would be involved in rectifying past inequities, proactively and systematically. Every department would be sensitized to the effects of past discrimination and would counter these often entrenched and subtle effects by actively promoting fairness in the creation of programs, the provision of services, the letting of contracts, and the hiring of staff. To understand the relative lack of emphasis on CHR as an institution under Washington compared to now, it’s important to understand that this government-wide addressing of bias was Mayor Washington’s goal.

Levinsohn missed one other piece of history that may prove instructive. She says that “in 1980 the quixotic mayor (Byrne) all but dismantled the not very effective agency (CHR).” What she reports as part whim and part efficiency was in fact political retaliation in response, not to ineffectiveness, but to CHR’s doing its job. As I understand it from those who were around at the time, both in and out of government, CHR in 1979 had issued a report criticizing what was to become Mayor Byrne’s pet project, ChicagoFest, for virtually freezing out minority vendor participation. Months later, Byrne attempted to eliminate the agency entirely.

It’s easier to speak out against neighborhood racists and cross burners (or critique prior administrations) than to challenge systemic discrimination in high places, including your own city government. From what I saw of Clarence Wood before I left town, I expect he’ll be availing himself of some opportunities to make important people uncomfortable. I hope he’ll devote some of CHR’s wonderful new resources to looking for those opportunities and that the new advisory councils will accept his invitation to help.

Judy Stevens

Santa Fe, New Mexico

Florence Hamlish Levinsohn replies:

What is Judy Stevens so angry about? That I didn’t give the deceased Al Raby enough credit? I was concentrating on the present and wrote only a few paragraphs about the history of CHR. But I did say that the staff had been dedicated and hardworking. That I called CHR a “moribund little agency?” I guess that depends on your angle of vision. Most people outside the agency I talked to weren’t even aware of its existence. I also got that impression from some staffers, some of whom I quoted. That I attributed Jane Byrne’s dismantling of CHR to “whim and efficiency?” I never mentioned efficiency. I too heard the story about the ChicagoFest connection, but I couldn’t find enough hard evidence for it. As to the staff numbers, I made a typographical error; there were 38, not 8. Stevens’s description of Washington’s modus operandi is very interesting and expresses her own and others’ idealism, but it doesn’t add up. CHR was designed to combat discrimination not in city government but out in the community. I stand by my attempts to explain Washington’s failure to beef up the agency. I take it from her last paragraph that Stevens was not overly impressed with Clarence Wood. She’s entitled. I have a rather better impression, but then I don’t carry any baggage from a previous administration.