Race in the Race

11/29/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Twenty-five years ago, fabled columnist Mike Royko calmed his Uncle Chester by assuring him that Harold Washington had no intention of marrying his daughter.

Royko's missive appeared the day after Washington, a former state legislator and second-term congressman, captured Chicago's Democratic primary on his way to becoming the city's first black mayor.

No one ever accused Royko of being a knee-jerk, brie-and-chardonnay liberal. He was what we used to call "white ethnic," a working-class, shot-and-a-beer guy who spoke for many Chicagoans like him through his alter ego, Slats Grobnik.

But on Feb. 23, 1983, Royko's column slapped us like the biting wind that blows off Lake Michigan. "Eeek! The next mayor of Chicago is going to be a black man! Let's all quiver and quake," he wrote.

And then he ordered us to take a deep breath and exhale. "The city isn't going to slide into the river. The sun will come up today and tomorrow, and your real estate values won't collapse.

"Oh, come on. Let's all act like sensible human beings. ... Who knows, we might even wind up liking him."

I covered that election, and I wasn't so sure my city had the chops to overcome its distinctive narrow-mindedness about race. Chicago was far from the Deep South, but it had been pegged America's most segregated city. Could we get over ourselves and elect a black man mayor?

We did, but not without a few stumbles. In Chicago in those days, the Democratic mayoral primary was the election, but that year we had one of the closest general elections anyone could remember. Washington defeated Bernie Epton, an honorable guy and moderate Republican, but not before the race-baiters in Epton's campaign unleashed a last-minute slogan that was hardly subtle: "Bernie Epton: Before it's too late."

So here we are, 25 years later, and the stakes couldn't be higher. We're about to choose a president at one of the most critical times in our history, and one of the two major-party candidates, to quote Royko, has an "attribute" unlike any other who has been nominated for the office.

Yes, Barack Obama is a black man. And for that one silly, stupid reason, some Americans are leery about voting for him. Regardless of their political leanings or their own self-interest, they may be inclined to vote for the other guy, or not vote at all.

The forces of fear are well aware of this, and in a close election, they're likely to turn up the volume on what has already been a steady stage whisper about race.

You know the code. Barack Obama was a community organizer (black people). He has a strange name (black Muslim). He's an elitist (uppity black man). His wife has very strong views (Militant Sista!).

Look for more of the same, starting with Sarah Palin's attack on Obama's relationship with "domestic terrorist" Bill Ayers, and Rush Limbaugh's not-so-subtle pronouncement that Colin Powell's endorsement of Obama is "all about race." Barack's a Muslim. Barack's a socialist. Barack is a You Know What.

I'm not objective about this. I'm voting for Obama. And since I live in Chicago, I may even vote for him a couple of times. (That's a joke, people; lighten up.)

Are we smart enough to reject the race card? In what seems like a lifetime ago, Harold Washington held a press conference the day after the 1983 mayoral election and wryly observed that the Sears Tower was still standing.

That election was messy and awkward and far from perfect. A lot of white people didn't vote for Harold. But we all eventually learned it didn't matter that he was black.

Chicagoans are, after all, a practical lot. We applauded Washington when he did something good and blasted him when he did something dumb, just like we've done with every other occupant of the mayor's office. Just like we'll do with the next president, Democrat or Republican.

"John McCain, before it's too late?" Let's hope it doesn't come to that, and if it does, don't fall for it. We're so much better than that. Vote for the candidate you think will get us out of the serious mess we're in. Vote for the person whose views best represent your own. That's what we're supposed to do.

Royko's advice holds true today. Take a deep breath. Exhale. It'll be OK. And if it turns out that we elect the guy with the darker complexion, don't sweat it.

Who knows? We may even wind up liking him.