Featured, Race & Politics, Theory & Essay

The Distraction Of Racism And The Bipartisan Roots Of Chicago’s Black Suffering

There’s a Toni Morrison quote I used to bristle at:

The function of racism is distraction.”

I had never read the full context of this quote and initially, I thought this was another attempt to dismiss racism as a primary societal ill deserving of discussion, while prompting us to start paying attention to the “real” issue ie;- classism. This is an idea that’s frequently purported by clueless celebrities, people who just finished reading Rich Dad/Poor Dad, and that Black Capitalism group whose posts your cousin shares on your Facebook news feed. However, as the years passed, and current events and subsequent commentary rolled by, I finally understood what she meant. This is especially true today, in what many call ‘Trump’s America.” Even typing the aforementioned phrase I am physically struggling to keep my eyes from rolling so far back into my head that I pass out.

We know Trump’s mentioning of the gun violence in Chicago, and poverty in the inner city is the obligatory conservative dog whistle, not genuine concern. We know his sensationalist rhetoric is meant to reassert Black urban dwellers as either impoverished, uneducated, unemployed hapless citizens or barbaric and morally depraved “top gang thugs.” Because of this, I understand the pushback of such a narrative. I understand rebutting his egg avi jargon when he asserts that we are collectively poor and struggling, unemployed, immersed in misery and violence, largely in part due to Obama’s leadership and our own moral depravity. When he reprimanded John Lewis for presiding over a ‘poor and struggling’ Atlanta district it’s highly unlikely he knew anything about said district, other than it’s a metro area largely populated by Black people.

However, while we’re pushing back via Twitter RT’s with personal anecdotes passionately proclaiming to be magically Blackity Black, passport wielding, Obama-era loving successful negroes — ones who don’t live in the inner cities and/or are not greeted with bullets as soon as we open our doors — we become preoccupied. The truth is that a lot of Black people are in fact impoverished, are in fact living in areas rife with violence, and are in fact unemployed and suffering. The past eight years have not been kind to them and the compulsion to tout Obama’s job creation record in defense against Trump’s bloated rants obscures the truth that this arguable ‘growth’ did not reach the most vulnerable and disenfranchised of this country’s Black populations.

This reality was reiterated when U.S Rep Danny Davis released a data report this past February, revealing the unemployment rate for African American male residents in Chicago is currently three times the national average at 21%  (14% higher than unemployment for white men in the city). 52% of African American men in Chicago are not in the labor force. According to 2013 census reports, 25% of Chicago’s Black residents are jobless and yes, this did happen under the watch of a city boasting largely Democratic and liberal leadership. Of the 5000 jobs cut since 2009, 40% of those belonged to workers whose zip codes denote residence in predominantly Black neighborhoods. Even while Rahm Emanuel rode to mayoral victory with 59% of the city’s Black vote, he continues the tradition of focusing job creation in downtown and affluent neighborhoods to the exclusion of black communities. According to a 2013 report from The Grassroots Collaborative, only 27% of the 50,000 jobs created downtown actually went to Chicago residents (one can only imagine how little of these went to Black folks). Around 10% of Chicago residents are living in deep poverty ($5,885 a year for an individual or less than $12,125 for a family of four), and seven predominately Black communities account for that population. African American children accounted for 83.7% of  homeless students identified by CPS according to the Chicago Coalition For The Homeless. All of these are grave statistics that correlate with the gun and gang violence concentrated in Black areas around the city, among other factors. Sure they are not headline grabbers; like Trump calling for federal intervention, but these are matters that are imperative to the conversations that more importantly we must have among ourselves.

While Chicago is emblematic of some of this country’s worst socioeconomic segregation and racial wealth gaps, it is not at all an anomaly. Sure Trump is a malignant racist demagogue, but Atlanta’s income inequality gap is 3rd in the nation. That is something that actually does deserve our examination. There are a lot of dangerous things about the current president, but among them is the ease at which he has become the sole symbol and catalyst for America’s racial and economic strife. The problem with calling it ‘Trump’s America’ is the implication that these issues are newly formed, or just recently exacerbated, that this country is a product of his policy when in fact this country’s policy produced and enables him. His presidency is yet another optical aberration allowing us to avoid taking a clear and honest look at our current condition, we did not arrive here overnight on the SS. Orange Mess Express. Chicago’s suffering at least, is a result of bipartisan state level neglect, as well as local Democratic incompetence and malfeasance.

Toni was right, racism is a distraction, and while it is absolutely understandable to be contemptuous of our current administration, we can also stand to stop being guard dogs in defense of figures and affiliations who have failed a lot of us. We can stand to spend less time barking at the Orange Obfuscation and more time noticing the apathetic silence of those in our communities, who can’t tell the difference between the present — what many argue is the impending apocalypse — and January 20, 2009.

Danielle Butler

Danielle Butler is a 30-ish yr old LA/Chicago hybrid whose mutant powers include shit talking, procrastinating, and relating any topic to food. Her favorite pastimes include watching Spongebob with her son, yelling at her cat, and lying about working on her book of short stories.

  • FeeFee

    This was such a good article. A lot of the issues the AA community face will not be resolved by Governors, Senators, Presidents, Celebrities, Politics and ect. It will be resolved by us and us alone. We need to build our own.

    • Mary Burrell

      If black folks did this with Black Wall Street why can’t we do this?

      • FeeFee

        Precisely. The only solution to all of this is to build our own.

  • BT

    I’m definitely feeling this piece. As I struggle with this (somewhat minor) annoyance whenever I see/ read educated men and women in Atlanta, making light of Trumps declarations of the poor and disenfranchised from Atlanta. Simply because you are doing well (seriously…good job), doesn’t mean some of my closest family members aren’t still residing in dilapidated housing, hidden behind a veil of gentrified (and buppified) lofts, town homes, and park districts. Still doing what they have to do to keep the lights on and their bellies full.

    The struggle is the same as it has always been. A fresh coat of paint can only do so much to cover the dry rot that has been left to fester unchecked for decades.

    Great read.

  • fedup

    Thank you, thank you, and more thank you for providing a roadmap for those of us who have struggled to be articulate about this amongst the more well-off of our people. I get so tired of people who, because this hasn’t been their experience, completely dismiss that this is the reality for large segments of the Black community.

    I think we’ve become so accustomed to defending ourselves against prevailing narratives, that some among us have resorted to pushin “desired” narrative as reality.

    For example, while working on trying to bring our community (in Los Angeles) around development inducing gentrification in a predominantly Black community, and need to educate and mobilize the voices of the people not in the conversation (lower-income, younger, primarily female, single parent renters, who are unaffiliated with organizing groups), you get the older, more affluent, extremely engaged Black folk wanting us to hush up about the fact that the conversation is being led by the people least likely to be affected by it. They’ll say “Oh no, there is NO ONE in MY community is unaware of what’s going on. How can could anyone not?”. Well, Mr. XYZ the 3rd, just because you and YOU’RE block club members (all 13 retired people who have nothing better to do than to go to all the community meetings) are aware, doesn’t mean that the lady pushing a stoller with her WIC check behind you in line does.

    • Mary Burrell

      You have compassion and empathy for the poor and disenfranshied that’s a beautiful thing.

    • lunanoire

      Sadly, even the block club members were late when it came to providing input about the Expo Line. As a person interested in urban planning with no connections, I attended neighborhood planning sessions in 2002, and afterward left for another state. It took over a decade for others to show up at the table, unfortunately.

  • TheCollinB

    “There are a lot of dangerous things about the current president, but among them is the ease at which he has become the sole symbol and catalyst for America’s racial and economic strife.”

    *sings the chorus to “Redbone” again*

    Butler you are exposing the holes with your analytics here! Every cultural breakdown brought on by sh*tty politics that they’ve tried to push pin on Trump have been first pulled off the board of both the GOP and DNC. Both have failed and yet the go to now is to blame Trump (even tho he’s more than willing to take the attention for it.) You can’t take a president to task for something he didn’t create and you can’t expect that president to fix it. Even if it’s “Trump’s America” it’s still OUR neighborhood. Support people that look like US or we KNOW are working with our interest in mind. Rahm having an Obama co sign didn’t mean a thing to the people for whom his election mattered the most and they’re living and well being are no better for it.

    But hats off to Chance for at least calling his state people to task and putting money toward respurces to begin to solve the problems.

    • Hugh Akston

      “America” it’s still OUR neighborhood. Support people that look like US or we KNOW are working with our interest in mind. ”

      Or should be an AND?? Just inquiring

      • TheCollinB

        Nah only because sometimes black people aren’t gonna be an option for offices we vote for.

    • Blueberry01

      #BankBlack
      #BuyBlack
      #GiveBlack

  • Siante?

    It feels like the author reached into my brain with this post & said everything I’ve been wanting to articulate about this topic but didn’t know how.

  • Moderate Democrat

    Keep hammering home those leftist tropes, it’s what you were taught to do for the entirety of your life. Correlation is not causation, didn’t they ever teach you that?

    What difference does it make anyway? What actual solutions do you have? You don’t, and never will. This is just more mental circle jerking for self fashioned pseudo intellectuals.

  • Brilliantly said Danielle. What a well framed argument backed up with volumes of data.

    At the risk of triggering opprobrium, why don’t we as a community every call our politicians to task? We all live in areas with state assemblies, city or county councils, school boards, Congressman and other political figures. Why don’t we ever call out these people? This isn’t to let governors and senators and presidents off the hook, but there’s a whole political system out there that they don’t really influence much. Ask the citizens of Ferguson, Missouri, how irrelevant the city council is? There are plenty of places like Ferguson throughout America, as well.

    Politics shouldn’t be about mere semiotics. We should hold our representative to account for what they do, and replace if necessary.

    • Darkchloe144

      It’s unfortunate that it takes something big (President Nectarine) for you to wake up one day and realize the ends and outs of our political system are at a complete loss to you. You realize that more local and state political systems have never really been discussed with you in depth as a poor black girl or boy in a shiddy education system (from poor Memphis to poor Westside Chicago for me). You have to just figure it out on your own, by the grace of College and/or Google go a lot of us. You don’t even realize its something you should take an interest in until its too late.
      I agree with you, of course. Many of us just weren’t, and still aren’t, informed enough to even know how to get informed enough to make a difference.

      • Monica Harris

        Thank you. All Americans, myself included, are so ignorant about the processes of government. I was lamenting this fact over the last election. I’m convinced our ignorance is by design.

    • `Abdu’l-Karim Ewing-Boyd

      Keep in mind that poverty is expensive. If you don’t have the money, you probably also don’t have the time and you rarely have anything close to access. In DC, ANCs are the most accessible level of government to people, but to make it to the ANC meeting you have to make sure that the kids were picked up, fed and watched. That’s IF your shift is not scheduled for when the ANC meeting happens. Conventional politics is not set up for poor people to participate.

      Before folks get into the political version of “if folks stop buying Jordans, they’d have more money,” keep in mind that real civics and real local/state history is barely covered once in elementary curricula (civics and history), once in middle school (usually history) and once in high school (usually civics). We’re talking about less than one full academic year spent on being an active citizen. Put that politically unprepared person into an economic situation that is built specifically to distract and extract and you have sizable segments of the electorate sidelined. Add in the loss of voting rights for certain felonies…

      This is why so much time was spent on registering people to vote, getting them to the polls, meeting to discuss platforms and policy. It is also why so much time has been spent on throwing up barriers to registration, moving and centralizing polls, etc.

      • Kas loves Jamaican Breakfast

        Just an FYI this comment section is not one to throw out the pair of Jordans bs.

        • `Abdu’l-Karim Ewing-Boyd

          My point was that arguments about political disenfranchisement are similar to ones about economic disenfranchisement. Black people are often blamed for their own low power balance (substitute why don’t more black people vote/go to town halls/shop parties for why don’t more black people save/invest) instead of the blame going where it should, at systems of oppression masquerading as market forces or the political process (as though these were sui generis realities and not built, maintained and adjusted to ensure distraction and extraction).

          I personally don’t get spending big money on shoes and I don’t get being a sure bet for any one party or candidate, but I definitely don’t see either of those symptoms as the root of the problems facing our communities. We are still not seen as human beings and so our communities remain under threat.

      • Even though I had to Google what a ANC is over in DC, I get your larger point. I’m not necessarily even mad at the poor for this. In so many cities and towns, you have situations where it’s effectively a monarchy because people simply run unopposed. Then they have the gall to turn around and say that they’re the representatives for the people through their elections. Meanwhile, they don’t mention that because of the election rules, they effectively choose their own voters.

        Even if a poor person were interested in getting involved, in so many cities, they don’t have a fair shot.

        • Epsilonicus

          But even not including the poor, how many middle class black folks, especially middle class millennials, are consistent and regular voters? I mean voter turn in the U.S. in general is low af compared to other industrialized countries.

          • Thank you for mentioning middle class millenials. I remember when I was a poll worker, I’d amuse myself by counting the people in the polling place that were under 40 that were there to vote, as opposed to work. Other than the 2012 presidential election, I don’t think I ever threatened triple digits while sitting there for 14 hours of my life. Those voters have the least excuse of all. In NYC, the voter guide is available in app form. You can Google whatever you want, and quiet as kept, you can actually look up candidates in the freakin’ booth so long as you don’t scream who you’re voting for. That these people don’t show up, even considering that few people work 16 hour days, is striking.

            • Epsilonicus

              Exactly. Baltimore has low voter turnout in all precincts. Almost none get above 30%, even in middle class and wealthy districts. People who can actually be involved in the process are not. Where it may barriers for poor people, they are minor annoyances for.us middle class folks

  • I’d be interested in similar analysis for cities like Jackson, Mississippi or Birmingham, Alabama that are >70% Black and have been for decades

    • DarkSkint Dostoevsky

      Interestingly enough when I began looking for cities with the highest black unemployment figures very few were below the Mason-Dixon line. Chicago is not really a largely Black city, that number is especially dwindling now that many are moving to the south suburbs.

    • Birmingham would be a particular interesting case, because it was founded to exploit cheap freedmen labor in industry and mining. Heck, it was named for the city in England for its industry, not because its founded had any ties there.

    • Brooklyn_Bruin

      “Birmingham’s per capita homicide rate is lower than Baltimore’s and higher than Chicago’s. There have been 46 homicides in 2016 to date, according to Birmingham police. Based on the city population, the per capita rate is about 1 in 4,618.”

      Google cache.

  • Mary Burrell

    That quote from Toni Morrison about racism being a distraction has me flummoxed i need to understand this.

    • Darkchloe144

      Knowing her, there’s probably more to it than that.

    • esa

      here’s more context for the quote:

      “The function, the very serious function of racism, is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language, so you spend twenty years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly, so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Someone says you have no art, so you dredge that up. Somebody says you have no kingdoms, so you dredge that up. None of that is necessary. There will always be one more thing.” -Toni Morrison

      • Furious Styles

        Yup. Moving the goalposts. I always feel some kinda way when I see those memes the writer of this piece alludes to (Magic Blackity Black see black kids DO go to school and read. We DO get married. Ha!). I know we are struggling in a context of hate and demonization, but much of it can be borderline respectability politics.

        • esa

          white pathology is a demonic force. it erases history and tradition, invents lies, fake food, fake medicine, fake news .. it employs logical fallacies at every turn. it indoctrinates minds with disinformation and calls it “education.” and then to top it all off, it uses trauma to destroy bodies and souls.

          i understand why many people are shadowboxing with lies. they got folks locked up in Plato’s Cave (Plato knew the way his people operated). if you don’t have a principled & philosophic approach to life, you’ll get caught in the countless traps they lay out to yoke folks up.

        • Monica Harris

          All of this. I’m not proving anything to anyone anymore. Sometimes it feels like Black people are always trying to show others how worthy and normal we really are. We gotta stop that.

          • Furious Styles

            Same for those “the media won’t show this” posts. So needy and approval seeking.

      • Mary Burrell

        Thank you for that it makes more sense to me now and she’s right about that.

      • fedup

        Case in point: The conversation that was had (in Damon’s post from yesterday about Viola Davis’s snot) regarding Black British actors being chosen for roles that Black American actors “might struggle to lose themselves in”.

        The verdict? Colorism 2.0

        The system of wyt supremacy requires evolutionary tactics.

      • Blueberry01

        Kind of like how Trump was trying to delegitimize President Obama.

  • Wizznilliam

    Well damn… I could not have said that ANY better. Great article. I’ve become so tired of arguing with black folks and the newly woke white Clinton folks in despair that their Queen lost the election. No one in their right mind should be surprised black people are not motivated to show up and vote. Republicans are insane and Democrats don’t do much but talk when it comes to black peoples issues. Even I am about done with the “Please vote for us so we all are not stuck with those insane people” routine.. Address our fucking issues Democrats!

    • Kas loves Jamaican Breakfast

      She didn’t lose because of the black vote

      • Wizznilliam

        She could have won with more black vote. She didn’t get the same numbers as Obama. Similar percent but not similar gross from what I remember.

        • fedup

          The numbers have been discussed ad-nauseum on this forum, and the collective consensus has been (and remains) that Black people are not to blame for this election outcome.

          As a reminder:
          https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/aea33eb2c74551c133f4e95b2d143015e1b15c2f2e5ffd5d58ad6d27ae6454b6.jpg

          • Wizznilliam

            I’m not arguing that black people are to blame. I know that if we were to rank groups that let Clinton down #1 on the list would be white women, followed by working class voters and probably a couple other groups before getting to black people.. Again.. I’m not arguing that.. My point is that the black people were not all that motivated to vote for her either. It is not arguable that her numbers were the same as Obama’s in ANY of those groups, especially black people.. She did not lose the swing states like MI in WI by that many votes… Certainly if Obama numbers of any of those groups would have shown up in those states she likely would have won them…

            • fedup

              Did you see my picture though?

              • Wizznilliam

                Yes… I completely agree with the pic and acknowledged it in my response. White women by far screwed her over. Which maybe she could have overcome by trying to better address black and brown issues instead of going to Beyonce’ to try to get people to go out to vote.

                • fedup

                  Oh you did. I was just making sure you saw it. I like it when people comment on all the hidden meanings in the particular photo.

                  You good Fam!

                  • Wizznilliam

                    That is some hella shade tho in that photo… lol..

                    • fedup

                      This is best example of right place, right time I can think of in recent history. If I had the photog’s (and the subject’s) permission, I’d get it on a tshirt and wear it every Friday.

                      I’d wear it at the mall
                      I’d wear it down the hall
                      I’d wear it in front of yoga studio containing wyt women wall to wall.

                • Reese Money

                  Take into equation as well voter suppression laws and tactics the GOP implemented over a 4/8 year time period which had a huge impact on the ability of black folks to vote in 2012/16. That is something that has to be noted as well. I also agree with you, when you look at states such as NC, Michigan (Detroit) Wisconsin (Milwaukee) the voter turnout she received definitely didn’t rival that of Obama – which cost her the election in some sense. The opposite end of the spectrum is also the increased voter turnout and enthusiasm from rural based communities who turned out in record numbers to support 45; areas such as Florida, Iowa, PA, and Wisconsin. If Clinton receives the same numbers Obama received in 2012 – even with increased voter turnout in rural areas – from areas such as Milwaukee and Detroit she would’ve still won the election; is that based on black voters not being enthused and supportive, absolutely. But it’s also based on the restrictive voter based discrimination (e.g. voter I.D. laws, closing down of voting centers near urban centers etc.) as well.

                  • Wizznilliam

                    Yes… I agree with all this. I would only say that they’ve been doing the voter ID stuff for a while. Though yes in some areas it was even worse. Obama got so much extra turnout in the black community though that it didn’t even matter much. Even anecdotally I had to wait in lines to vote for Obama in the hood.. Everybody was there no matter what.. I was in and out in no time at the last election. And they’ve gerrymandered the districts so much that our votes barely even matter much for Congress… And the local politicians (Chicago hood burbs) are pretty much powerless and almost useless. It’s just ridiculous.. And where are the democrats. Most likely somewhere with their hands in somebodies pockets.

                  • Epsilonicus

                    To add to what you said, Trump had lower turnout that Romney in 2012. There was not a surge of voters for Trump. There just was a decrease of voters for HRC

            • Kas loves Jamaican Breakfast

              If your point is Democrats need to do a better job if they want the black vote, I completely agree.

              • Wizznilliam

                Yes… This is EXACTLY my point. They saw a surge in black vote because of Obama. They won’t see that again without actually addressing our issues.

                • Epsilonicus

                  The question I have is whether Obama-like turnout is the new normal or just a blip.

                  • Wizznilliam

                    Yea.. That’s what I’m saying. I think that it is definitely a huge blip. I’ve been voting in the hood for years and haven’t seen nothing even close to the Obama voting lines. If Democrats are depending on that to overcome their racist neighbors and family members then they need to start delivering something for us.

            • Monica Harris

              I thought your point was very clear. I agree.

        • Kylroy

          She could also have won with (insert one of several dozen valid options). When you win the popular vote but lose the EC, any number of extremely minor factors could have changed the outcome.

          • Wizznilliam

            Yes. I agree. I said a similar thing later in the thread. I only bring up black people because that is what this article is about. And because Democrats are always begging us to get out and vote every 4 years with dumbass radio jingles instead of actually serving us.

More Like This