Thursday, March 2, 2023

Flashback 2000: Do-good effort won't do any good


The Triumph of Fame, by Giovanni di ser Giovanni Guidi (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

   Did you wake up Wednesday morning with a wincing unease that could be unwound as, "Gee, I'm glad Lori Lightfoot lost. But Paul Vallas? Really? He's the best we've got?"
      Thinking to ward off this sour feeling with information, I plunged into the archive, looking for what I've written about Vallas. The short answer is: not much. A reformer turned hired gun traveling bureaucrat, he was good at signing pledges like the one mocked below.  A pledge that Vallas blithely violated, at least the "I will discourage all forms of prejudice by others at every opportunity" clause, when he allowed the caustic Fraternal Order of Police to climb into bed with him without a murmur of protest. The fact that Vallas felt obligated to put some daylight between himself and Gov. Ron DeSantis when the Florida fascist came to town says everything. I like to think this all means Chicago will welcome Mayor Brandon Johnson come May. But if we've learned anything, it's that we minimize the Aggrieved White Person vote at our peril.
     Chicago is the most segregated city in America. They leave that off the brochures. No Southern backwater ever managed to balkanize the races as completely as Chicago has, first as a matter of official policy, and now as lingering tradition.
     So it was with more than the usual weary, ironic reporter's smile that I tore open an envelope from the city this morning and found my very own copy of the "Metropolitan Chicago Pledge," the Commission on Human Relations' latest attempt to justify its existence.
     First, to work us into a signing frenzy, the pledge bandwagon is rolled out and put on display: Mayor Daley has already signed. Cook County Board President John H. Stroger Jr., too. Ditto for Paul Vallas, the head of the public schools.
     I'm not sure whom that's supposed to impress. Now if Matt Hale or Lu Palmer had signed, that might signify something dramatic was afoot. But no.
     The pledge itself is a masterpiece of early 21st Century touchy-feeliness. It begins with three sentences, two simple ones and one tongue-twister that might have been crafted by the mayor himself.
     "I believe that every person has worth as an individual," it begins. "I believe that every person is entitled to dignity and respect." And then the Daleyian doozy: "I believe that every thought and every act of prejudice is harmful; if it is my thought or act, then it is harmful to me as well as others."
     Then the call to action:
     "Therefore, from this day forward I will strive daily to eliminate all forms of prejudice from my thoughts and actions. I will discourage all forms of prejudice by others at every opportunity. I will treat all people with dignity and respect; and I will strive daily to honor this pledge, knowing that metropolitan Chicago will be a better place because of my effort."
     The city plans to distribute this travesty to "youth-service agencies, places of worship, corporations, and businesses," in the form of "posters, bookmarks, and wallet-size cards." This is just hobbyhorsing — and given the endless meetings and discussions (whoops, make that dialogues) that no doubt went into this effort, not to mention the printing and postage, every Chicagoan has a right to greet it with a thumb to the nose, a wiggle of the fingers, and a moist blat of ridicule.
     Is there any reason we should accept this bit of empty symbolism from the same city that erected the nightmare housing projects we are still struggling to free ourselves from? The same city whose city council voted to ban Martin Luther King Jr.'s open occupancy marches 49 to 1? Of course not.
     The true insult behind the pledge is that racism is a deep, institutional problem, the sort of evil that surface do-goodism has no effect on whatsoever. Can anyone not in the direct employ of the department of human relations believe that any shred of racist feeling will be diminished because of this pledge? Impossible.
     And we haven't even begun to address the long, scary history of pledges and oaths of all forms. They're fine to inculcate patriotism in 6-year-olds, but after that they are usually studies in coercion and hypocrisy.
     We laugh at those old duck and cover civilian defense films from the 1950s because of their woefully inadequate understanding of the problem being faced. Just as curling up under your desk is of no use when the hydrogen bombs start falling, so weak albeit well-intentioned efforts such as this current travesty mock the seriousness of the problems they pretend to address.
      —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Feb. 17, 2000.


  1. I once sat on the board of a not for profit . I volunteered to be a member of the diversity committee which engaged in endless meetings and discussions that produced the same kind of touchy feely nonsense as contained in the oath. I guess it wasn't surprising since the diversity committee consisted entirely of Caucasians

    1. I recall being forced to attend a teleconference on creating diversity in library collections. I saw the presenters, started to laugh, and was asked to leave by my director when I was unable to stop. Same thing and my unscholarly approach was to ask my patrons what they wanted and hire a diverse staff. It worked pretty well.

  2. Not that long ago I was visiting a friend in Gainesville and we went to a bar to meet with some of his friends. Not long after we sat down, in came Joe Clark, former New Jersey high school principal for which the movie Lean on Me was based.
    He was a friendly enough sort so I asked why he decided to move to the South. He said besides wanting to live near his friend Bo Diddley, in the South you know where you stand. Up north, not so much.
    He went on in a way similar to your description of the pledge. Nice words.

    1. I lived in Gainesville in the mid-Seventies, and I even lived on the edge of the Black neighborhood, and played pool at a Black pool hall (knowing the owner helped a lot). I found relations between the races in north Florida to be far more direct, honest, and uncomplicated than I ever did in my native Chicago, where I spent half my life (or in Cleveland, for that matter, where I've lived for the last thirty years). Yes, everyone knew exactly where they stood. Unlike up North, there were far fewer shades of gray between the two primary colors of black and white.

      But I did get fired from a job in Gainesville, for being "too friendly with them cullud boys on the loading dock." In 1974, believe it or not. That was right around the time when Southerners were endlessly promoting the "New South." opposed to the older and more notorious one.

      The main difference between the two, at least in my brief and limited experience down there, was that it merely became unfashionable (in most circles) to use the N-word anymore. Meet the New South...same as the Old South.

    2. Two ships passing in the night. I went to UF from 67 — 73 when the Gators landed their first black football player and elected the first black as student body president against the wishes of School President Stephen C. O’Connell.

    3. For me, it was '73 and '74...lived with my Cuzz, a Vietnam vet finishing college on the GI Bill. We sold programs to the early "Tail-gators" before home football games. I lived in a succession of cool college towns in the 70s...Boulder, Isla Vista, Gainesville...before finally settling down and living in South Evanston for 17 years. I just didn't want to grow up.

  3. Neil, I love how you think and how you write! And this is so disheartening -- what will it take to become a city beyond systemic, deeply entrenched racism???? James Baldwin says (and I know you know this!) that "Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced." At least the Metropolitan Chicago Pledge stated a "good intention!" And I realize it's meaningless without plans and actions that are implemented with integrity and accountability! But then we have a mayor -- what was Lori LIghtfoot thinking when she "armored" up every day to treat everyone she encountered as the "enemy" vs. an ally! I contend she would have been at least within the final two winners of Tuesday's election if she had 1)replaced the chief of police months ago and 2)never said that at 60 she wasn't likely to change in response to the criticism about her lack of relationship building skills. Why don't you run for mayor! I would volunteer in that campaign!

  4. Not a chance in hell will I vote for Johnson, as he's owned & operated by the insane & vile teachers union!
    That loon is for defunding the police, even though he's been backtracking on that stupidity.
    He wants to bring back the head tax on employers which drove companies to move out of the city.
    He wants other taxes to be instituted or raised, just the exact reason Preckwinkle was crushed by Lightfoot four years ago in that runoff!
    On top of that, he would roll over & give the teachers union whatever they want when their contract is up. If they wanted just 10 kids per class, fine with him, $150,000 minimum pay for new teachers, fine with him, $250,000 for veteran teachers, he'd think that's terrific.
    Johnson is a damn the taxpayers, full speed ahead to bankruptcy for the city!
    So even if Vallas got support from that Neo-Nazi Cantanzara of the cop union, who also supported T****'s attempted coup, as soon as early voting starts, I'm voting for Vallas!

    1. And here we have a spot-on citation, in case the concluding sentence from Neil's intro today needed one. "...if we've learned anything, it's that we minimize the Aggrieved White Person vote at our peril." Not that Clark St. is the only person expressing such an opinion lately, needless to say. It'll soon become apparent whether this line of reasoning is as successful as his crusade against "Taxwinkle" was last time around, and whether the result is even more unfortunate.

    2. The FOP’s support of Vallas, and his support of school vouchers are extremely minor flaws (if they are at all) compared to the support of a brooding, self serving, influential, accountability-free and anti-educational leviathan like the CTU. Underestimate the zealotry of those who would sacrifice the education of the city’s children in exchange for a luxurious meal ticket flush with no strings attached generous salaries, time off galore, and horn-o-plenty benefits packages at your own peril.

    3. Exactly how am I an Aggrieved White Person, when I sure as hell wouldn't vote for a white person spouting the same insane bullshit Johnson is spewing out about taxing & taxing & taxing?
      That's all Vallas has to do to win, make sure every voter voter knows, that Johnson will raise taxes & create new taxes to give his superiors at the CTU whatever they want.
      And what CTU really wants is to control Chicago & turn it into the paradise the call the current state of Venezuela.
      Don't forget, CTU sent a delegation to Venezuela a few years ago & those whackjobs came back & gave it such a glowingly approval report, you'd think it was Denmark without cold weather!
      When in fact it's a basket case, that can barely pump its oil, the largest known in the world, but really thick crude, which only the giant US oil companies have the actual expertise to get it out of the ground & refine it.
      And if you ever buy gas from a Citgo station, that's owned by the government of Venezuela!

    4. " extremely minor" ? Even compared to an endorsement from CTU...
      An antieducational leviathan?

      Tell me more

  5. This run-off will be the ugliest bit of Racial politics since Epton/Washington--Vallas will embrace anyone to win-- having never won before--he is rabid for it...BUM...and always a Bridesmaid...

  6. Great column as always. But in regards to the Mayor Daley line, it has the word "Every" twice and everyone knows Daley never says "Every", he says "Evy".

    But I worked at that time for a large company and we had that training. Some people it helped others not so much. Some people move forward others don't. To quote the great philosopher Muhammad Ali: "If you're the person you were 30 years ago your a loser".

  7. The “Aggrieved White Person vote”? What about the black people that voted for Vallas? I’ve talked to a dozen or so who’ve told me that they are going to vote for him in the run-off, and about half of them told me that they didn’t vote for him on Tuesday. My friend Charles, who is pretty liberal and a Democrat has a saying: “The problem with the Democrats is that they only care about crime when it’s committed by the cops”.

    1. In Friday's paper Jesse White endorses Dallas.

    2. My understanding is that Vallas won the ward that Johnson lives in. Johnson finished third. I don’t think this is as simple a black vs white issue as is suggested here.

  8. So we've got 2 flawed candidates vying to be Mayor of Chicago. What's new! My question is, "Why would anyone want to be Mayor?" In order to get the job, you have to make impossible to implement promises. In order to keep the job, you have to renege on almost all the promises while "floating like a butterfly and stinging like a bee." Dodging and weaving, explaining and grieving, happy to have unlikable enemies and bearable friends. Lori wasn't up to that. We'll see whether Vallas or Johnson is.


  9. Love the comments-so many are right on point; thanks to all for taking the time to comment. And love this piece about the election and the candidates. Was born and raised in Chicago-married and left for 19 years-lived in Texas, Georgia, Virginia, Missouri, Detroit burbs and finally back home to northwest burbs. While prejudice is everywhere, I find that most people in the Chicago area and burbs make as effort to be open to other races and nationalities, even if they tend to live with people like themselves. Thanks again.

  10. Can either of these candidates even approach the Chicago claim to be The City that Works, create enough jobs to compete with the gang recruiters and allow inner city kids to dream of a better future? Probably not. Oaths and pledges mean nothing to serious people. My condominium association starts every meeting reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, a childish endeavor that embarrasses me. It's an oral bumper sticker, which reminds me, here in Florida I know where to obtain bumper stickers that say "Let's Go Brandon"


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