How the 1983 Race for Chicago Mayor — And the Coverage of That Racially Charged Campaign — Relates to the 2012 Presidential Race, and Next Week’s GOP Convention
Is it racist to run against or oppose a black candidate for office? To rational people, posing the question answers itself: of course not. But the candidacy of Barack Obama reminds us that there are people out there ready to portray as “racist” any spirited opposition to Obama and his policies. This cynical mode of attack will absolutely be used in the coverage of the upcoming GOP convention. We all know this, and we know it doesn’t matter what happens at the convention — the charge of racism will be made regardless.
I was reminded of this on my morning walk as I listened to a podcast episode of one of my favorite radio programs: “This American Life.” It’s a great show with insight into innumerable facets of human existence. But it sometimes goes wrong when it strays into politics, or covers an issue that is a liberal hobby horse. (The program suffered a famous embarrassment earlier this year when it had to essentially retract an entire episode about treatment of workers at Chinese Apple manufacturing plants; the conditions described were mostly accurate, but parts of the narrator’s account had been fictionalized without the program’s knowledge. As I wrote here, the retraction was honest and well done. But one wonders if the oversight of the program’s contents was more lax because the slant of the program related to the liberal hobby horse of exploitation of overseas workers in sweatshops.)
The segment I listened to this morning, an old segment from March 2009, gave me the sense that the producers had been scammed again. Although the segment is old, it has a direct relevance to today’s presidential politics, because it portrayed a white politician (Bernard Epton) running for office (mayor of Chicago) against the first black candidate for that office (Harold Washington).
If the parallel to Barack Obama is not clear from that description, the segment made it explicit. The segment was first aired two months after Obama’s inauguration, and the narrator drew repeated parallels to the McCain/Obama race. (You can read the transcript here.)
Epton, a Republican, was described in the segment as a decent man who rejected racism — at least, before he ran against his black Democrat opponent. For example, Epton had stayed put in a residence located in an area that was experiencing “white flight,” because he believed that it was wrong for whites to leave an area simply because its demographics were turning black. Near the beginning of the segment, Epton is heard explicitly rejecting the notion that anyone should vote for him because he was white:
So many people are saying if Harold Washington wins, the white people will be afraid and they will then vote for you and that improves your chances.
Well, I resent that very much. I think that Harold Washington and I, if he is a winner, I am positive that we will come out with a joint statement, perhaps speak together to repudiate it. I don’t want to be elected because I’m white and Harold doesn’t want to be elected because he’s black. I want to be elected because I’m the best qualified.
But the segment then portrays Epton as changing his tune, and tolerating racism in his campaign once he thought he might win. The narrator explains that, because Chicago is heavily Democratic, it is generally expected that a Republican candidate like Epton is going to lose. But when Harold Washington, the black candidate, won the Democratic primary, all of a sudden Republicans thought that Epton had a chance. Outside national consultants came in to help. And, the segment claims, Epton began behaving differently.
I listened to the episode for evidence that Epton was tolerating racism. One of the pieces of evidence was the slogan (submitted by national political consultants) that Epton adopted: “Epton for mayor before it’s too late.” Epton insisted that the slogan referred to Chicago’s financial problems, but I guess the left saw it as a dog whistle.
Then Epton was blamed for racist appeals made by his supporters that his campaign did not countenance:
The slogan set a tone for the campaign– the very tone Epton said he didn’t want. Now, it was going to be whites versus blacks, with Epton as the white savior. And soon, anonymous leaflets popped up in white neighborhoods all over the city. One of them read, “Your vote for Mr. Epton will stop contamination of the city hall by a Mr. Baboon.” Around town, Epton supporters donned various buttons. One depicted a watermelon with a slash through it. Another button had nothing on it at all. It was just white. None of these were being distributed by Upton’s campaign, but it was all being done in his name.
If it was being done in his name, I guess it was his fault? That’s certainly the impression you get.
When a racial incident made national news — someone scrawled “nigger die” on a church that Washington was slated to visit, Epton condemned it in no uncertain terms:
I am appalled that any people in any community would interfere with the worship by any religious denomination. And like you, I reject any of that antagonism or racism or bias or call it what you will.
But the big “gotcha” moment that is supposed to show Epton’s complicity in racism came when one of his confidantes became angry at a William Safire op-ed that the campaign was distributing. The op-ed is portrayed in the segment as arguing that if blacks can vote for Washington because he’s black, whites can vote for Epton because he’s white — and Epton is portrayed as supporting the argument:
[O]ne of Epton’s campaign workers– his policy director, Haskel Levy, began having qualms. He’d already confronted Epton over the slogan and Epton, even while defending the slogan, told him, “Haskel, stay with me. If we win this election, I’ll get rid of all these Republican operatives and opportunistic Democrats and we’ll do good work once we get in.” And so Haskel stayed. But then, one afternoon at campaign headquarters, Haskel noticed a pile of papers by the front door. They were hundreds of copies of an op-ed piece written by William Safire, conservative columnist for the New York Times.
It basically claimed the following– if blacks can vote for blacks because they’re blacks, whites can vote for whites because they’re whites. And I looked at it and I just hit the roof. And I took the whole pile and threw it into the garbage can. It’s a shallow– it’s a stupid way of looking at the world. It’s just false.
Right, but also, it was in the context of what had been going on in that campaign. In some ways, the campaign was using it to justify–
[UNINTELLIGIBLE] incendiary– an incendiary thing. It was being passed out– people were coming in to collect them to give out in the neighborhoods. When blacks get screwed because they’re blacks, they’re a legitimate interest group. What is the white interest group? I can understand a Pole voting for a Pole, a Czech voting for a Czech, but why would a white vote for another white? The only thing, in this particular circumstance, they have in common is that they don’t like blacks.
And so it was after that that you went and talked to Bernie Epton the second time.
This was the second time and I said that I’d had it. I said, do you realize what’s happening? I said, you have to repudiate the racist campaign. You’ve got to repudiate any people that are supporting out of racist reasons. And if you don’t, I’m gone. And if you don’t, I’m voting for Harold Washington. And Bernie said his argument is correct– Safire’s argument is correct. And I said, that’s it Bernie. And that’s when he got pissed off. And he picked up my coat and jacket and briefcase and he ostentatiously threw it out of his office. And he literally said, get that [BLEEP] out. And he threw me out of the office. And I left. That was the end of it.
(All emphasis in this post is mine.)
Here’s the problem: I found Safire’s piece, and it makes precisely the opposite argument of what the story claims. Safire called it “racist” to vote for whites because they are white, and noted that Epton agreed. In other words, there was nothing racist about Epton saying that Safire’s argument was correct.
You can read Safire’s piece in its entirety here. Safire begins the piece by noting some of Washington’s less attractive qualities as a candidate:
- Washington failed to file income tax returns for 19 years. He was convicted of tax law violations and jailed for a month.
- The State Bar suspended Washington from practice for 5 1/2 years for converting client funds to his own use.
- Washington made false claims in his application for reinstatement to the Bar, falsely denying that he had faced any civil actions during the years he was suspended from his law practice. In fact, he had faced five civil actions.
None of these aspects of Washington’s past make in into the “This American Life” segment, by the way. We are told only how the black man in Chicago stopped getting screwed after Washington was elected.
Safire rhetorically asks whether it is “racism” to bring up such issues about a candidate’s past. He notes that it would not be considered racism to bring up similar foibles by a white politician — showing a double standard. True enough, no?
Then Safire addresses the argument referenced in the “This American Life” segment about the desirability of races voting as a racial bloc:
The double standard comes in when a possibility arises that whites may do the same thing [as blacks did in voting for Washington as a group]. If it is laudatory for black voters to vote as a bloc for the black candidate, then logic dictates it should bother nobody that white voters are likely to vote as a block [sic -- sorry, Mr. Grammar! -- ed] for the white candidate.
But it bothers everybody, including the white candidate, who insists he wants no votes from racists. And racist is what such a voting pattern would be, of course: If words have meaning, voting on the basis of race is racist.
Accordingly, we should either stop praising the black community of Chicago for uniting behind the black candidate or stop complaining when whites show inclinations to do the same. Both actions are racist: Praise both or condemn both.
If Safire is calling voting as a racial bloc “racist,” it’s kind of hard to portray that as praise.
Ultimately, having read Safire’s piece and listened carefully to the segment, I can’t find any evidence Epton was a racist. I think Epton’s legacy is being smeared because he happened to run a spirited campaign against a black politician.
The “This American Life” program is ironically called “The Wrong Side of History” — and indeed, liberals are certainly going to work to portray any white Republican as being on the “wrong side of history” when they run against a historic black candidate.
But it ought to matter whether the candidate is worthy. Based on what I know of Washington, it’s a joke that he was a viable candidate. With his background, he should have been laughed off the podium. It’s only because Chicago is such a corrupt and highly partisan town that a guy like that has a chance.
Which brings us to Barack Obama. It is perhaps no accident that he made his political bones in Chicago — the same town where a black politician with a history of criminality, dishonesty, tax evasion, and cheating people was portrayed as a hero. Perhaps Obama noted how Washington was feted and thought: hey, this is the town for me!
After all: it’s the Chicago way.
I took the time to write this post about a three-year-old radio segment about a 29-year-old political race because I think it’s important that history be written properly. Make no mistake: Big Media and liberals (but I repeat myself) will strain to rewrite the history of the GOP convention next week to make it seem like a cornucopia of racism.
We can’t let them do it. We have to make sure history is written properly, the first time around.