Thursday, December 30, 2010

Straight Dope Chicago Responds

Read Cecil Adams's response to my post here.

I appreciate the response from Cecil. It is far more measured and charitable than my post was. Still, although I would be the first to admit that my initial post was a touch on the polemical side, I stand by what I said there. For example, I still disagree, as Cecil said in the original post that "The lesson many drew [from the "Time of Troubles" when Washington was mayor] is that meaningless elections = peace and prosperity, whereas democracy = bad". Perhaps the 25-30% who supported the Two Eddies crusade against Washington would endorse this claim. But I doubt that the majority of ordinary Chicagoans would.

That said, I felt partially vindicated after reading how much clarification there was in Cecil's response. I felt vindicated in the sense that the response largely argues that Cecil agrees with what I was saying (for the most part), whereas I'd construed him as disagreeing. I'm pleased to see that we're in agreement on more than I'd previously supposed, but I'm not convinced that we agree on everything.

Although this wasn't perhaps clear in my initial critique, part of the problem with Cecil's column on non-partisan elections had to do with what it didn't say. What I mean is this. If you didn't know the facts about Washington, race and politics in Chicago, you wouldn't walk away with a very accurate view after reading the column. Absent Cecil's recent clarifications and qualifications, the original column would leave you with the impression that Washington was a "problem" best avoided in the future. Compare and contrast Ira Glass's excellent piece on Harold Washington with Cecil's original column and tell me that the latter doesn't miss the mark.

Some of Cecil's points are well taken. I wouldn't want to argue that non-partisan elections are inherently racist. However, in certain contexts, when put to certain uses, they may absolutely be an instrument of perpetuating racial subordination. And in our case in Chicago, they are such an instrument. Using them cynically in order to prevent a non-Machine-sanctioned Black reformer from taking office again seems to fit the bill here. Cecil seems to agree with this much.

But Cecil's "second point" is that despite this unsavory history, non-partisan elections have their own merits as well. But what are these merits? This is where I get a bit confused.

In the original column, Cecil argued that the merit of non-partisan elections is that they force candidates to appeal across racial lines, whereas the older procedures didn't. I don't think this is true. To be sure, the old procedures had plenty of problems. But it isn't true that the old system didn't require candidates to appeal for support across color lines. The story of Harold Washington, as Cecil himself agrees, invalidates that worry. Furthermore, it isn't even obvious to me that "non partisan elections" encourage candidates to appeal across color lines. I don't see how eliminating primaries is a step in the right direction here, but I'm open to changing my mind. I do think that the non-partisan procedures were implemented to dilute the black vote, and I don't think they were ever drawn up to increase democracy. But I concede that the one-party Machine domination of Chicago politics may have been aided by the previous set-up (though it remains to be seen whether the new rules will have any effect on the health of the Machine... my own thought is that it will take a grass-roots struggle from below to really shake things up in Chicago).

One final thought about the idea of "appealing across racial lines". There is a reasonable sense of this idea and there is one that is problematic. The reasonable version is this. People of different races should be fully equal co-legislators, and should relate to one another on terms of respect. I myself endorse this rather abstract and idealized version.

But the problematic version is sneaky. It trades on the appeal of the idealized version above, while actually apologizing for already existing oppression. The problematic version basically interprets "appealing across racial lines" as "appealing to the prejudices and existing privilege of white people". In other words, "appealing across racial lines" means "appeasing those sitting atop the existing racial status-quo".

Thus asking white and black people to appeal to one another is not an identical request. Asking whites to appeal to black people means asking the historic oppressors to listen to, and take seriously, the needs and interests of the oppressed. Asking black people to avoid talking frankly about racism in order not to alienate mainstream whites is a different requirement entirely.

Of course, the most fundamental reason to combat and fight racism rests mostly on the "reasonable version" of the idea that I laid out above. You fight it because you care about the bigger struggle of fighting for an egalitarian society in which human beings encounter each other as equals in the fullest possible sense.


A mixed-race American said...

Everybody's racist.

t said...

Thanks for the incisive, profound point.

Anonymous said...

"Although this wasn't perhaps clear in my initial critique, part of the problem with Cecil's column on non-partisan elections had to do with what it didn't say."

Serious? In a 1438 word column you couldn't express your main problem with the Straight Dope article, which was that it left something out?

You suck as a blogger.