Chicago and Atlanta have always competed for the title of political capital of black America. But now comes the news that the Chicago area’s black population has dropped to third in the nation, after Atlanta's.
That’s OK. We’re still the political capital of black America. The first black president, Barack Obama, and our soon-to-be county board president, Toni Preckwinkle, are proof.
Even with fewer people, Chicago’s African-American community has historic and structural advantages Atlanta can’t match.
First of all, African-Americans have a much longer history of political empowerment here. Illinois is the Land of Lincoln, and it lived up to that name by granting blacks the vote in 1870. Atlanta called itself “The City Too Busy to Hate,” but it took another century for the Voting Rights Act to guarantee blacks full suffrage in Georgia.
In the South, politics have always been polarized between blacks and whites. Chicago’s Machine politics were built on ethnic confederations in which every group got a share of the power. In 1928, Chicago elected the nation’s only African-American congressman. We’ve had one longer than any city in the nation.
Also, Chicago dominated Illinois’ politics far more than Atlanta does Georgia’s. It’s in Cook County, which contains nearly half of Illinois’ voters. And the Democratic Party is a countywide organization. After Carol Moseley Braun beat two white men to win the 1992 Democratic Senate primary, precinct captains in white Chicago neighborhoods and the suburbs whipped up votes for her in the general election.
As a result, Illinois leads the nation in electing black officials to statewide office: we’ve had two senators, a comptroller, an attorney general and a secretary of state. Georgia has a black attorney general who was appointed by the governor before winning election on his own.
In Illinois, Barack Obama’s support wasn’t confined to the black community when he won 53 percent of the vote in his Senate primary.
Preckwinkle also transcended race, winning both black and white votes while her opponents -- two blacks and an Irishman -- couldn’t break out of their ethnic communities.
In fact, Chicago is something better than the capital of black politics. It’s the capital of post-racial politics. Atlanta has a long way to go before it arrives there.
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