The Book Club

Daley and Race

Dear Ester,

Where else but in Slate do the authors of a book get to complain about their review before it’s even finished? I’m happy to have Cohen and Taylor join our discussion, but I do wish their complaints were more interesting. First, on my conflict of interest: It’s a curious standard that says it’s fine for a reviewer to despise the subject of a book and to judge it accordingly but somehow corrupt for him to have a fully disclosed, tenuous personal connection (relative of an employee of a relative of the subject). Before my mother worked for Rich Daley, she worked for Harold Washington. They, too, were “closely aligned.” I’ve chosen to write infrequently about Chicago politics over the years, partly to avoid having to answer this sort of mindless criticism. Sigh.

I didn’t say the authors have no view about Daley, merely that they don’t come out and state it. And they don’t, at least not with anywhere near the directness of their e-mail message. For instance, the passage they cite from the introduction notes that “civil rights activists saw Daley as an oppressor and a taskmaster”–not that the authors do. Put that way, it’s a statement of indisputable fact, not a judgment. Thanks for sticking up for me by agreeing that the story of Chicago’s open-housing fight is “oft-told.” In addition to the books you cite, it was recounted in detail in Nicholas Lemann’s best seller The Promised Land and the PBS documentary Eyes on the Prize, second series. I think Cohen and Taylor did a fine job with this narrative, but they’re not breaking new ground, which was my only point. As for the complaint that Slate hired two white reviewers – you’re white? We could make the same complaint about Little, Brown’s signing up a pair of Caucasians to explain Daley’s racial insensitivity. But that would be absurd.

I certainly don’t dispute the centrality of race to Daley’s story–I had intended to focus my final entry on that topic today before I got distracted. I fully agree with the authors that Daley’s efforts to maintain racial separation in housing and education constitute his most damning legacy. In fact, I’d go farther and say that one segregationist act–Daley’s raising of Robert Taylor Homes, a two mile-long avenue of tower blocks that added to existing housing projects to create the largest expanse of concentrated poverty in the country–was his single greatest misdeed. This may have been the same thing that was happening in other cities at the same time, but Chicago’s version of it was more massive in scale (Second City complex again) and thus created a horrific paradigm of the underclass poverty. They should remove the name of Robert Taylor, who was a decent integrationist, and rename them the Mayor Daley Homes.

But there are some important caveats to the racial critique of Daley, which the authors leave out. The first is yours–that focusing on racial separation in Chicago in isolation doesn’t tell you a lot. Which of the great integrated cities of the North would Cohen and Taylor would compare Chicago with? Boston? Philadelphia? Cleveland? American Apartheid by Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton, a book the authors cite in their bibliography, includes data showing that Chicago was by a very significant factor the most segregated Northern city in 1930. By the time of Daley’s death, in 1976, Chicago had approximately the same degree of residential segregation as every other big city. In other words, during Daley’s rule every other American city changed to become segregated in the way Chicago already was. This slightly complicates the argument that Daley made Chicago the most segregated city of them all.

Insofar as it’s possible to read the mind of an inscrutable dead man, I think Cohen and Taylor correctly describe Daley’s attitude toward race. Daley wasn’t a racist in the way George Wallace was. He neither hated black people nor wished to deny them legal rights. But Daley was an ethnic separatist. He lived his entire life in Bridgeport, a tightly knit Irish enclave where blacks, above all other outsiders, were unwelcome. Bridgeport was his social model; he saw Chicago as a patchwork quilt, not a melting pot. Exclusionary neighborhoods were also Daley’s fixed political units. Under the machine’s ethnically based spoils system, every group, blacks included, got its share. We may have moved beyond this view both of government and urban society, but at the time it had the support not just of most whites but also of most blacks, who continued to vote for Daley in election after election. William Dawson, the head of what Cohen and Taylor call the black sub-machine, explicitly opposed the integration of public housing. He wanted black votes concentrated in the wards he controlled.

You could go a step farther and say that racial separation was a malign policy with some beneficial consequences as well as the obvious harmful ones. While Chicago lost population during the Daley years, most of its middle-class ethnic neighborhoods remained intact. The city suffered a mitigated version of the white flight that destroyed the tax base and created a downward spiral in Detroit and elsewhere. A big part of the reason for this was that white Chicagoans knew that Daley had the power to forestall busing and racial integration in their neighborhoods. Chicago’s white ethnics simply were not going to live alongside blacks in the 1950s and ‘60s. Daley deserves our scorn for not resisting this reality. But I doubt that it would have made much difference if he had.

It’s been a pleasure clubbing with you, Ester. I look forward to your final comments.

All the best,