Chicagoans should start talking about why they’re so afraid in the first place

White voters can’t actually be afraid of violent crime because data shows they don’t really experience violent crime.

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Mayoral candidates Paul Vallas and Brandon Johnson prepare for a Mayoral Forum on March 8 at NBC 5 studios in the Peacock Tower.

Mayoral candidates Paul Vallas and Brandon Johnson prepare for a Mayoral Forum on March 8 at NBC 5 studios in the Peacock Tower.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Over the next three-plus weeks — via mail-in ballot, early voting and Election Day voting on April 4 — hundreds of thousands of Chicagoans will cast a ballot for the city’s next mayor. They will choose between former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas and Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson.

There are very clear differences between the candidates on issues such as education, policing and city finances. Those divergent views were on display in their first head-to-head debate this past week. Also on display were their accusations that the other candidate seeks to make race an issue in the campaign.

For sure, race will be a central theme and determining factor in the mayoral runoff. But neither Vallas nor Johnson can be blamed for that. Chicago has a long history of race serving as a fault line in city politics … and just about everything else.

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The influence of race won’t come from Vallas, who is white, or Johnson, who is Black — although their rhetoric might certainly contribute to it. The element of race will come from the rest of us, as it always does.

We’ve already seen it in how Chicagoans have processed the city’s most pressing issue — and the campaign’s most prominent issue — violent crime.

Vallas has fashioned himself as the law-and-order candidate and rode his tough talk on fighting crime to a convincing first-place finish during the first round of voting — particularly among white voters.

He received 33% of the vote citywide and won nearly 500 precincts in the Feb. 28 municipal election. He was strongest in majority-white precincts on the city’s Southwest and Northwest sides and also in the Loop and surrounding communities. In all, Vallas finished first in more than 350 majority-white precincts throughout the city. When he ran for mayor four years ago, he claimed just 5% of the vote citywide.

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Interestingly, since 2019, there hasn’t been a murder in the majority-white Forest Glen, Jefferson Park and O’Hare communities on the Northwest Side and Mount Greenwood on the Southwest Side, according to an analysis of violent crime victimization data on the city’s data portal. In addition, there hasn’t been a nonfatal shooting in the majority-white Edison Park community on the Northwest Side.

Additionally, since 2019, nonwhites are 14 times more likely to be a homicide victim than their white counterparts, the analysis shows. And nonwhites are 18 times more likely to be the victim in a nonfatal shooting than their white counterparts.

In contrast, among the Black and Latino communities with the highest violent crime figures, voters preferred other candidates to Vallas.

So why are white voters in and around downtown and on the Northwest and Southwest sides so enamored with Vallas and his crusade to make Chicago safer? They’re far and away the safest group in Chicago and live in the city’s safest communities.

They’re afraid.

But they can’t actually be afraid of violent crime — they don’t really experience violent crime.

Since 2019, there have been 315 homicides in the majority-Black Austin community on the West Side — nearly three times the total number of white homicide victims in the entire city during that span.

I think white Chicagoans are afraid of something else.

My guess is that they’re afraid of the communities where violent crime most often occurs — and the people who live there — Black and Brown people.

It fits.

For decades, white Chicagoans have expressed fears of their nonwhite neighbors — usually with their feet.

White Chicagoans used restrictive covenants to confine Black residents to segregated communities. When the covenants fell, whites fled to the suburbs. When Black residents followed them, particularly to the south suburbs and the near west suburbs, white residents fled even farther away.

More recently, when Latino residents left their enclaves and moved into white communities on the Southwest and Southeast sides, white residents fled. In suburban Cook County, the white population has fallen dramatically since 2000 as the Latino population there has exploded.

Over the past decade, some of the most dramatic demographic shifts have occurred in the southwest suburbs, where white population has declined as the Asian population has surged.

In addition, white Chicagoans have abandoned churches, schools, restaurants and shopping malls once they lost their white majorities. With every wave of white migration, the city and the region have been reshaped economically, socially and politically. Things eventually settle until Asians, Blacks and Latinos begin to encroach — and then the process repeats.

Vallas and Johnson will continue to debate their strategies to make Chicago a safer place to live. And every Chicagoan should seek to be in dialogue with them to determine who has the best plan.

But that’s not the only conversation that needs to take place.

Some Chicagoans should also start talking about why they’re so afraid in the first place.

Alden Loury is senior editor for race, class and communities at WBEZ and writes a monthly column for the Sun-Times.

The Sun-Times welcomes letters to the editor and op-eds. See our guidelines.

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