If you're one of those wide-eyed parents who told your children that the 2008 election of Barack Obama signaled the start of a "post-racial" America, be sure to shield your kids from the inevitable ugliness of Chicago's upcoming mayoral election.
When Mayor Daley's 21 year reign comes to an end next spring, Chicago will still be one of our nation's most segregated cities. And let's not forget that more than a few Chicago politicians have built their careers -- at least in part -- on the politics of race. With the stakes as high as they'll be in the coming months, there's absolutely no reason to think that Chicago's professional class of surrogate race-baiters (white, black, and Hispanic) will sit on the sidelines while City Hall hangs in the balance.
Sure, the race-baiters of 2010 tend to whisper rather than shout, but they'll do their best to ensure that race remains a hot-button issue in this election. They are able to do this largely because Chicagoans of different colors continue to live, work, and socialize in different worlds. In far too many ways, we Chicagoans remain strangers to each other.
Think I'm wrong? Of the aldermen and politicos currently eying Daley's throne, how many of them can say with a straight face and clear conscience that they have demonstrated the ability to represent all Chicagoans? Of that subset, how many have actually spent significant time listening to the concerns of Chicagoans in neighborhoods where most of the residents don't look like them? How many of these mayoral wannabes understand the specific concerns of voters in parts of the city where most of the residents earn either markedly less or markedly more than their own constituents?
How many of these candidates are willing to speak hard truths (or what they believe to be truths) to voters with whom they have little in common? Do you really think Alderman Ed Burke plans to campaign (along with his security detail) in Englewood? Do you seriously expect to see Reverend James Meeks knocking on doors in Edison Park to talk up school reform?
This will be a two-part election. To get through Phase One, a candidate will need money and the ability to raise more money. In addition, each would-be mayor will need to be able to cut enough deals with members of his or her clan -- be it the white, black, or Hispanic clan -- to ensure that he or she becomes that group's "standard bearer" heading into the February election. Pure tribal politics.
No candidate is likely to earn over 50% of the vote in what promises to be a crowded field, so the winner will almost certainly be decided during Phase Two -- the April runoff. Expect the politics of race and fear to loom large between February and April. You've seen this movie before.
There is another way, but it's likely to have few takers. Instead of allowing and encouraging behind-the-scenes race-baiters to target issues that divide us, candidates could focus on three basic problems that concern Chicagoans of all stripes: our city's financial mess; our increasingly unsafe streets; and the high price of political corruption.
Granted, it might be a bit tricky for those aldermen who signed off on the parking meter deal and annually rubber-stamped Daley's budgets to speak credibly about our city's financial woes. And candidates who said nothing while Daley and his police superintendent helped destroy the morale of our ever-shrinking police force will have a hard time being taken seriously when discussing ways to reduce crime in Chicago. Finally, how many of the candidates will be able to tell you (without spontaneously combusting before your eyes) that they represent a clean break from the corrupt patronage politics that has polluted our city for decades?
Our city has some serious problems that warrant serious discussion, but my spider-sense still tells me that this mayoral contest will get ugly in a hurry. On a "racial ugliness" scale from 0-10 -- with 0 being a campaign brought to you by the "United Colors of Benetton" and 10 being Alderman Berny Stone joining the Republican Party -- I predict this one is going to be an 8.
Here's hoping some grown-ups prove me wrong.