Chicago’s declining black population, Bill Grimshaw’s Bitter Fruit.

Bill Grimshaw's Bitter Fruit shows the meager results black Chicagoans have gotten from supporting the political machine.

A New York Times article this weekend courtesy of the Chicago News Cooperative wrote that Chicago and suburban Cook County have seen a decline in their black populations, and that this drop has political implications.

Former Tribster James Warren has two major assertions in his column.  Offered  in the article’s opening paragraph, the first draws on data from the American Community Survey to say that black people represent the city’s most important voting bloc:

Whether you’re Mayor Richard M. Daley or Mayor-In-His-Mind-Rahm Emanuel, no voting group is more important for a Democrat than the city’s African-Americans. Increasingly, there are fewer of them.

The second and related point Warren makes is that these lower numbers could mean less clout for the city’s black communities:

When it comes to big-city declines in the number of blacks, there is the prospect of less influence in determining elected officials in those cities. There is also, as State Senator Kwame Raoul puts it, the possibility of diminished power in the allocation of resources, namely who gets the most public transportation, public construction and education money.

IIT Professor William Grimshaw is likely to disagree strongly with the first point, and to a lesser degree with the second.  In Bitter Fruit, he explores the communities’ relationship with the Democratic machine and the decidedly meager results it has borne.

Grimshaw’s book covers the period from 1931 to 1991, and includes sections on the ‘plantation politics’ that emerged after the city’s black population grew during the Great Migration.  While black voters were reliable Democratic supporters, as Warren notes in his column, they mostly got sub-standard services and representatives who took whatever personal gain they could eke from the situation.

Black electoral influence with the machine in 1963, when, Grimshaw argues, they provided the margin of victory for the first Richard Daley to defeat Republican challenger Benjamim Adamowski in what was by far his closest race.

From that point on, though, the decade became more turbulent.  Grimshaw writes that Daley became increasingly disengaged from the black community and started catering more explicitly to white concerns with racially tinged language.  By 1972, Olympic hero and longtime machine member Ralph Metcalfe had had enough, and broke ranks with his long-time patron.

Actions like this were part of what led to Harold Washington’s groundbreaking mayoral victory in 1983.  Grimshaw is married to former Washington campaign manager Jacky Grimshaw, so his attention to, and emphasis on, that movement is perhaps accentuated even more by that relationship.

Grimshaw’s relationship aside, it was a remarkable victory, but not one that led to black people getting more of the city’s resources on a long-term basis following Washington’s untimely death in 1987.  Here is an excerpt from an interview I conducted with Grimshaw for South Shore Community News in January 2005 :

Q: What do you think about the younger Daley 15 years after he was first elected?

A: You do learn from history. David Axelrod, a close advisor to Mayor Daley and a former advisor to Harold, took Daley to school and said, “The main opposition you face will be from the black community, so you have to do a lot of visibility to show that you’re incorporating blacks into the opposition.”  There have been improvements over his father, [like in] the level of police abuse. But when you look at material, things like share of minority contracts, a year or so ago, it’s the same thing.  Blacks are getting more getting more symbolically than materially. And if you look at who he’s faced, you couldn’t buy better opponents.

It would be interesting to see what Grimshaw thinks now, five years after that comment and 15 months into the tenure of the nation’s first black president.  My guess is that his view wouldn’t have changed much, and that he would find, like me, material for disagreement in Warren’s piece.

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