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Mayoral hopefuls want conversation on racism, but topic leaves some tongue-tied

Asked how to confront racism in Chicago, candidates for mayor agreed Thursday that it’s something that needs to be talked about, even as they treaded cautiously themselves.

Questions touching on race were front and center at a candidate forum presented by the National Association of Black Journalists—Chicago Chapter and co-sponsored by the Chicago Sun-Times.

Yet when the 10 invited mayoral contenders danced a little too much around a question about the role of racism in the lack of investment in minority communities, the event moderator, Sun-Times columnist Mary Mitchell, demanded they hone in how to “change the racism and the attitudes about the South and West Sides.”

Former Chicago Police Supt. Garry McCarthy jumped in first.

“It starts with the articulation and the recognition of how we got here. That’s racism. That conversation needs to be had, and it’s a very uncomfortable conversation that people don’t like to have. We have to stop the polarization. We have to have exposure,” said McCarthy, noting how he had installed a white police commander in a black neighborhood and a black police commander in a white neighborhood.

Mayoral candidates, left-right, Dorothy Brown, Gery Chico, Bill Daley, Amara Enyia, Garry McCarthy, Lori Lightfoot, Susana Mendoza, Toni Preckwinkle, Paul Vallas and Willie Wilson participate in the NABJ Mayoral Forum January 17, 2019. Also pictured are moderator Mary Mitchell of the Chicago Sun-Times, right, and CBS2 reporter Derrick Blakley, left. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Mayoral candidates, left-right, Dorothy Brown, Gery Chico, Bill Daley, Amara Enyia, Garry McCarthy, Lori Lightfoot, Susana Mendoza, Toni Preckwinkle, Paul Vallas and Willie Wilson participate in the NABJ Mayoral Forum January 17, 2019. Also pictured are moderator Mary Mitchell of the Chicago Sun-Times, right, and CBS2 reporter Derrick Blakley, left. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Businessman Willie Wilson argued the only solution is for the city to be fair in awarding jobs and contracts.

“You cannot teach a person not to be racist. You just cannot teach it. It’s just like you trying to tell me to change my religion to another religion. Forget about teaching somebody not to be racist,” Wilson said.

Former Police Board President Lori Lightfoot blamed the lack of investment on Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his economic development team not focusing their efforts on minority communities.

“They don’t recognize the fact that there’s racism,” Lightfoot said.

Community activist Amara Enyia said “the problem with racism is that it’s institutionalized practices and policies that are very intentional,” a point made earlier in the evening by McCarthy. Enyia said the city must “direct” public investment to the neighborhoods and award prime contractor roles to minority companies instead of subcontracting slots.

Mayoral candidates, l-r, Gery Chico, Bill Daley, Amara Enyia, Garry McCarthy, Lori Lightfoot and Susana Mendoza get ready for the start of the NABJ Mayoral Forum January 17, 2019. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Mayoral candidates, l-r, Gery Chico, Bill Daley, Amara Enyia, Garry McCarthy, Lori Lightfoot and Susana Mendoza get ready for the start of the NABJ Mayoral Forum January 17, 2019. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle said: “We don’t talk enough in this country about race and the impact over time of racism. If you look at investments in the city, we should be looking carefully at black and brown communities to be sure that the same investments are being made in them as more privileged white communities.”

Former Chicago school CEO Paul Vallas got through his answer without ever mentioning the word race.

“We have areas that have been in a depression state for four decades, generational poverty,” Vallas said, arguing that the need is for capital investment by the city in those communities.

Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown Cook said “it starts at the top” with the mayor and has a “lot to do with the diversity” of city employees, especially the mayor’s cabinet.

“I don’t think there’s any magic wand that’s going to erase racism overnight,” said former Chicago Public Schools Board President Gery Chico. “ I think it’s a lifetime job. We have to be on guard every day to look for its signs. We have to confront it heavily.”

Mayoral candidates, l-r, Dorothy Brown, Gery Chico, Bill Daley, Amara Enyia, Garry McCarthy, Lori Lightfoot, Susana Mendoza, Toni Preckwinkle, Paul Vallas and Willie Wilson prepare for the NABJ Mayoral Forum January 17, 2019. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Mayoral candidates, l-r, Dorothy Brown, Gery Chico, Bill Daley, Amara Enyia, Garry McCarthy, Lori Lightfoot, Susana Mendoza, Toni Preckwinkle, Paul Vallas and Willie Wilson prepare for the NABJ Mayoral Forum January 17, 2019. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Former U.S. Commerce Secretary William Daley agreed that it “starts at the top” but also managed to avoid mentioning race.

“The mayor has to set the tone that he’s going to be fair to every community in this city. That’s the sort of leadership I want to provide,” Daley said.

State Comptroller Susana Mendoza went last.

“I think we do need to acknowledged that race permeates everything in this city,” she said. “Black and brown communities have been victimized frankly by disinvestment for many, many years. I think it’s important to call it out when we see it.”

The candidates were limited to one-minute responses and prohibited from interrupting each other.

Earlier, the candidates registered some disagreements on whether a civilian police oversight authority should be allowed to choose the police superintendent.

Chico, Daley and McCarthy said the mayor should pick the superintendent to maintain accountability. Lightfoot, Enyia and Preckwinkle said they would give the power to a civilian. The others did not directly answer.

There was general agreement among the candidates to reopen community mental health centers closed by Emanuel with most of them saying they would go beyond that in some fashion.

Panelists for the forum were CBS 2 political reporter Derrick Blakley, National Public Radio correspondent Cheryl Corley and Chicago Crusader city editor Erick Johnson.