It's Not All Black and White

American Pharaoh

It's Not All Black and White

American Pharaoh

It's Not All Black and White
New books dissected over email.
May 24 2000 11:13 AM

American Pharaoh

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Dear Jacob,

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After reading your most recent letter, I clicked onto Slate and couldn't help noticing that Cohen and Taylor have already expressed their extreme dissatisfaction with our correspondence (scroll down to read it). As I mentioned earlier, I actually enjoyed reading their book. I also had no intention of comparing it to the many other books written on Chicago or Mayor Daley. However, the unbelievably defensive nature of their reply made me jump to my bookshelves and start pulling down some titles. The fact that educated friends of Cohen and Taylor do not know the story of Chicago's racist politics during the Daley years speaks volumes about their friends. I offer this list of some of my favorites (some are in Cohen and Taylor's bibliography): Mike Royko, Boss; Len O'Connor, Clout; Milt Rakove, Don't Make No Waves. Don't Back No Losers; Len O'Connor, Requiem: The Decline and Demise of Mayor Daley and His Era; Bill Gleason, Daley of Chicago; Ross Miller, Here's the Deal: The Buying and Selling of a Great American City; Bill Grimshaw, Bitter Fruit: Black Politics and the Chicago Machine, 1931-1991; Bill and Lori Granger, Lords of the Last Machine: The Story of Politics in Chicago; and George Rosen, Decision-Making Chicago Style: The Genesis of a University of Illinois Campus.

In truth, any book that pretends to be about Daley and doesn't tell the race story would be both worthless and selective history. However, the race story is certainly not the whole story, as we all agree. Neither is Daley the Builder of Great Monuments the whole story. What is most troubling about the Cohen and Taylor argument (yes, I do think they have an argument) is the failure to place Daley and the city of Chicago in historical context. It is obvious that many of Daley's policies were racist, but was Daley significantly different from other mayors of big cities during this period? There are many ways to answer that question. New York's Lindsay had better rhetoric than Daley, but what about the conditions of blacks in the city? What about public policies and how they affected the black population? Some little-known facts--during the 1960s, more blacks were working for city government (per capita) and more blacks were elected to public office in Chicago than in New York. Cohen and Taylor might tell us that blacks were in the less desirable city jobs, but in this period Chicago blacks who supported the machine received a piece of the patronage action. In New York, blacks had a black commissioner of parks. If you use today's standard to evaluate how Chicago's blacks did under Daley, of course we would say the city's policies were discriminatory. The sad truth is that during this period, blacks as a group were not doing particularly well anywhere in the country. If Daley had transcended the racism of his time, that would have been a great story. We certainly agree that he didn't. How can Taylor and Cohen make the claim that "Daley was one of the greatest racial segregators in U.S. history" without having presented the comparative data? As far as the racist legacy--residential segregation is only one measure. How about the percentage of blacks in the municipal workforce and ability of a city to elect a black mayor? I would argue that the machine experience actually gave blacks an advantage in Chicago for the post-civil-rights movement period, because they had experience in organizing and had already broken into the city's bureaucracy.

One other irony. When David Dinkins was elected the first black mayor of New York and started a minority set-aside program for city contracts, he had to find firms from Chicago and Atlanta for construction contracts because we had almost none in New York. Another important place where Cohen and Taylor miss the boat is in their discussion of the Community Action Program (CAP). They chose simply to discuss Daley's opposition to "maximum feasible participation" without considering what kinds of goods and services he actually brought to black communities with these federal funds. There is a wonderful book by J. David Greenstone and Paul Peterson, Race and Authority in Urban Politics, which was a study of CAP in several cities including New York and Chicago. It is true that Daley wanted to control the federal funds at City Hall--that's what strong mayors do. It would not have mattered whom the funds were earmarked for, Daley understood the power that is derived from controlling the budget (a point that Cohen and Taylor allude to in the early part of their book but never pick up again). In contrast, Lindsay supported the participatory requirements of the program. If we look carefully at outcomes, the story unravels. Daley funneled his CAP money into black neighborhoods through his ward organization and provided important social services and jobs programs. In New York, the money was distributed all over the city and mostly used for a complaint referral service. It was common knowledge that Lindsay was trying to set up a neighborhood-based political organization that could deliver votes during elections. Some people have called it Lindsay's effort to create a machine! The story is more complicated than Cohen and Taylor would have us believe.

One other aspect of Cohen and Taylor's letter troubles me. Its personal tone and ad hominem attacks are simply outrageous. I found myself amazed that they would find it necessary and appropriate to "out" us as white! Do they really believe that my race has anything to do with my thoughts about their book? I guess I must just be a naïve academic at heart. For years, whenever the New York Times would quote me in a story on Giuliani, it would identify me as "former adviser to the Dinkins campaign." The stories might have been about the city budget, economic development policy, or social policy--topics I have worked on for 20 years as an academic. Everyone knew that this was simply a way for the Times to weaken my legitimacy as an expert. It was a way of saying, "Oh, Fuchs is just one of those white Upper West Side liberals who always sides with blacks and Hispanics." What a disappointment to find myself once again being typecast. I must admit to some real amusement, however. This time I'm one of those narrow-minded "whites" who doesn't understand the centrality of race in American politics. Of course I have an identity that affects my worldview. In our first set of correspondences, I thought we both did a pretty good job of outlining what part of our experiences would be most important to disclose for the purposes of doing this review. Cohen and Taylor seem to think that someone who is black and knows nothing of the rich literature on Chicago politics would have been Slate's best choice. I can only suggest that if they looked at book reviews in academic journals, they would consider themselves lucky to have us!

I really want to address your point about Daley's understanding the centrality of basic services and his skills both as a politician and manager, but it will have to wait until tomorrow.

Warmest Regards,
Ester

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This week, a discussion of American Pharaoh: Richard J. Daley: His Battle for Chicago and the Nation, by Adam Cohen and Elizabeth Taylor (click here to buy the book). Jacob Weisberg is Slate's chief political correspondent. Ester Fuchs is director of the Center for Urban Research and Policy at Columbia University and teaches at Barnard College. She is the author of Mayors and Money: Fiscal Policy in New York and Chicago (click here to buy it).