Mayoral candidate Willie Wilson weighed in on the volatile issue of race in Chicago politics Thursday — suggesting white people don’t fully understand how issues affect African-Americans and accusing black aldermen of selling out by supporting the mayor.
“I want to call it like it is,” Wilson told a luncheon crowd of more than 100. “It’s unfortunate that in this kind of era, this time of the year that we have to sell ourselves out.”
But the political novice stumbled himself, appearing to address white people in the crowd at the River North restaurant as “whiteys.”
After calling out African-American aldermen for not supporting his mayoral campaign and for “voting pretty much 100 percent with Mayor Rahm Emanuel,” Wilson told the crowd at the City Club of Chicago luncheon that he’s accepting of all people.
“To the whiteys here, I’m letting you know, I ain’t prejudiced,” he said to some laughs from the crowd.
After the Sun-Times posted a report about the speech on its website, Wilson’s campaign issued a statement saying it “categorically denies the statements that were attributed to him” and demanded a retraction and apology.
“I’m not sure where this is coming from,” Wilson said in the statement. “I am proud to count people of all races as friends and supporters and would never refer to anyone as ‘Whitey.’ Maybe the reporter didn’t understand my Louisiana enunciation.”
The Sun-Times stands by its report and posted the audio snippet and the full video from the City Club of Chicago’s website. But Wilson’s campaign still insisted Wilson was not saying “whiteys.”
After Thursday night’s debate, Wilson said he found the word offensive and would never use it.
“Absolutely not. . . . I did not say that. That’s the bottom line,” Wilson said.”We don’t use those kinds of things.”“That’s a defensive word, ‘whitey’ That’s a defensive word. That be like somebody calling me the “n” word. So I would not do that, all right?”Campaign spokeswoman Tracey Alston said Wilson said he wanted to address the “whites who’s here” not “whiteys.”
The campaign also offered to provide 20 people who would attest that Wilson never used such disparaging terms.
In his luncheon speech, Wilson spoke candidly about race to the crowd of mostly clergy and supporters at Maggiano’s Banquets.
“I pledge to give my life to all citizens of American and in this particular case, here in Chicago as mayor,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what color you are to me. I’m not running because I’m black or African-American or colored, or Negro. I’m running [because] I’m the best human being for this job to get it done.”
Wilson also said race plays into whether Chicagoans know that the closing of 50 Chicago Public Schools put some kids in danger.
“Some of the white people here today may not know this, and I’m going to talk to you first. You may not know this. When you close 50 schools, and you talk about education, and I’m talking to the white right now, you [African-Americans] already know this. The mayor has said I closed schools because of education. Education don’t mean a thing if you send our kids into gang territories and they lose a life. You all hear me? I mean the white people. You all hear me, right?”
Wilson criticized Emanuel, saying he should have acted on the minimum wage “four years ago,” and said as a congressman, Emanuel voted 128 times against the Black Caucus.
“He didn’t think I had enough sense to go back and pull that,” Wilson said to laughs. “I have it in my pocket. I intend to bring it up on the debate if he gives me a chance.”
He continued his criticism of Chicago unions: “I know Chicago is a union town, but Chicago is also a God town,” he said, adding unions should have equal opportunities for contracts and jobs.
Wilson, who rose in the ranks from a McDonald’s employee to owning five McDonalds’s restaurants of his own — said he’s still humble despite owning a penthouse apartment in downtown Chicago.
“I live downtown now in Chicago and I have a penthouse now. Don’t have a shack no more,” he said to cheers.
He said he keeps a remnant of the segregation he grew up with in Louisiana: a sign that reads “colored and white.”
“It keeps me focused,” he said.
Wilson critiqued his own performance in Wednesday night’s televised debate, saying he didn’t know what “panhandling” meant. “Let me tell you what. I got to correct that. I don’t pass anyone on the street,” Wilson said.
“I give away about $300-$400,000 a year to people on the street. I don’t pass them because guess what? It could be me tomorrow.”
Wilson also addressed his own speaking style, saying he knows he sometimes slurs.
“Some people say that I talk with a slur. And I do. And that I only have a seventh-grade education. And I do,” Wilson said. “I had one person come up to me and said ‘Well you’re getting in this race, you should get somebody to teach you a little bit about how to pronounce the words.’ And I told them ‘Don’t you know, if I wanted to speak OK, I have enough money to pay for 20 teachers around me.’”
Wilson’s 45-minute speech, which included questions from the audience, was conversational and, at times, humorous.
Many in the crowd cheered and spoke to him during the talk, like church congregants to a preacher. Wilson closed with a prayer in which he asked God to give “strength to love even our enemies.”
He ended the speech casually: “All right. I’m done ya’ll!”
EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been edited to reflect that Wilson used the term ‘whitey’ once in his remarks, not twice as initially reported.