The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Harold Washington’s Election:
A Victory for Whom?

Jul 30, 1983

Harold Washington, a black congressman from Illinois, was elected mayor of Chicago in April of this year with 51.4 per cent of the vote. The election, which received national and even some international coverage, was marked by a high level of racism on the part of white people, organized in part by sections of the local Democratic Party machine. It was also characterized by a call by Jesse Jackson, head of Operation PUSH, for black people to register and to vote.

Washington’s election was hailed as a victory for black people by a wide variety of organizations. First and foremost it was described this way by most local and national black organizations and leaders. It was pointed to as a victory against racism and a proof of the Democratic Party’s commitment to black people by a number of national Democratic Party figures, many of whom (including Charles Manatt, head of the Democratic National Committee, Teddy Kennedy, a host of Democratic Party presidential hopefuls, and several southern Democrats) had actually gone to Chicago to participate in Washington’s campaign.

While the SWP (Socialist Workers Party) ran its own candidate, Ed Warren, and received 3,725 votes, or 3/10 of one per cent of the vote, the majority of the left lined up for Washington, seeing the election essentially within the framework posed by Jackson.

The Communist Party, which has a certain base in Chicago, and is certainly the most influential left organization in the working class, applauded Washington’s victory, picturing him as an independent progressive, who struck a blow against racism. They described his election as a reflection of the success of building a grass roots coalition.

Among others in the left, the CWP (Communist Workers Party), the Workers World Party, the Democratic Socialists of America, and the radical newspapers The Guardian and In These Times, all treated Washington as the traditional lesser of two evils. The Workers World Party called his election a “referendum on racism.”

Right on the heels of the Washington election in May, there was the Democratic primary in Philadelphia where W. Wilson Goode, a former black city official, won the nomination for mayor. This was followed by the announcement of a black candidate for mayor in Baltimore and the talk of such a possibility in New York City. At the same time, Jesse Jackson launched a voter registration drive in the South and began touring the country, proposing the idea of a black candidate in the upcoming Democratic presidential primaries.

The election of these black mayors is being viewed as offering an opening for black people in the system. Implicit in this view is the idea that the Democratic Party can be the party which represents the interests of black people. And in looking at the increased number of black people who registered – a hundred thousand in Chicago alone – and the much higher percentages who voted in Chicago and Philadelphia, we see some indication that black people are responding and accepting these ideas.

In reality, who is it who has reason to hope for change from these elections? And what changes do they have reason to hope for?

The Example of Coleman Young

To try to understand what a Washington victory could mean, it is useful to look at what similar elections meant for black people in the past.

It’s not the first time that black people have been told to put their hopes in elections and the Democratic Party. It’s not even the first time black candidates were elected. At the end of the 1960s and early 1970s, black mayors were elected in a number of major cities including Newark, Gary and Cleveland. But probably the most important election, in the sense that it should have presented the most possibilities, was that of Coleman Young in Detroit.

Young was elected mayor in 1973. Coming in on the coattails of the 1967 rebellion, he took office at a time when some of the more farsighted members of the bourgeoisie in Detroit, including Henry Ford and Max Fisher, had begun to implement reforms aimed at placating the black community. The most important of these were the move to integrate the police, and the massive hiring of black workers into the auto industry.

Young had a reputation in Detroit as a fighter. He was early associated with the union movement. He was one of the militants of the Ford organizing drive and later was an organization for the UAW and an official of the CIO. He was tied during the 30s and 40s to left causes and was one of a number of black Detroiters to stand up to the McCarthy hearings in the later 1940s. He was also identified with the civil rights movement in Detroit. Given his background, he was able to present himself as the representative of the black people, at a time when they were mobilized and defiant of the existing structures. It was these ties, at a time when there was still a mobilization of the black population, that gave him a certain leverage when approaching the state and federal governments for funding.

Moreover, Young had long had an important role inside the Democratic Party. He was active in electing the first black Democrats, and Young himself held important positions in the state senate for a number of years. After his election as mayor, he continued to improve his position within the Democratic Party hierarchy. He became vice-chairman of the Democratic National Committee. In addition, he had an understanding with Milliken, the Republican governor, which allowed him to have a certain access to the state treasury. In 1980, he succeeded in bringing the Republican National Convention to Detroit.

If any black mayor was in a position to get government money or advantages, or to push for reforms, Young was the one.

Young put himself forward as the black politician who would finally defend black interests in a majority black city. He opposed the white police commissioner in the final election. One of the main questions in the mayoral election was the racism of the police and the hated STRESS (Stop the Robbers, Enjoy Safe Streets) unit. STRESS was supposedly set up as a decoy unit to stop street crime. In fact, it acted as though its purpose were to terrorize young black people on the streets. In its two and a half years of existence, this one unit killed 22 people (21 of whom were black) and wounded 14 more.

What Did Young’s Election Mean for the Black People?

Young’s election was one of the things which changed the racist atmosphere for black people of Detroit. The most obvious indication of that change was the abolition of STRESS and the change in the racial composition of the police department, which resulted in an end to the most overt racist police violence. His election gave a sense of pride and satisfaction to many black people in Detroit; simply to have a black mayor meant finally to feel that the city they lived in could be more comfortable for them.

But his election didn’t alter anything fundamental about the society that most black people lived in. First on the material level, they continued to be exploited, and continued to occupy the lower strata of the working class. If there was a slight improvement in the standard of living in the late 1960s and early 1970s, that came essentially because black workers began to be hired in the auto industry, for the first time in big numbers. But that came before Young’s election, and it was a result of the struggles of the 1960s. On the political level, they had no say in the running of the city, and therefore no say in the organization of their lives. In other words, Young’s election didn’t give them any power.

With the advent of the economic crisis, the overall quality of life drastically declined for the majority of black people in Detroit. The unemployment has increased so that now the unofficial estimate for black adults is 40 per cent and the official rate for black youth is 67 per cent. The infant mortality rate is equal to that of an underdeveloped country. Street crime and drug traffic are up and there has been an increase in youth gangs. Young finds nothing to propose to black people to protect themselves against the crisis. In this he is no different than any of the other Democratic Party mayors, black or white.

Instead his administration was responsible for asking the black people of Detroit to accept the imposition of still other sacrifices. Taxes were raised. City services were cut way back and city workers were laid off and forced to take pay cuts. Today there is no public hospital freely available for the indigent in the city. Bus fares have been raised and service has been reduced to the point where whole areas of the city are without it. Schools have been closed, or had their programs reduced. Over half the public libraries have been shut.

Faced with the problem of a system in decay, and confronting the problem of a mass of young people on the streets, with no jobs, no prospects and no hope, Young has nothing to propose other than restrictions on the young people themselves. Twice now he has imposed a curfew. Recently in response to a crowd of young people who tried to enter the Renaissance Center to cool off after an afternoon concert, his police officials sent police on horseback to charge them, to prevent them from entering. The next day his administration canceled the free downtown concerts for the summer. His only answer to the black youth is repression and placing all of them under house arrest for the summer.

The only section of the black population in Detroit to receive real openings under Young were the black politicians and behind them the black businessmen. For the politicians, his election meant that no important city office was excluded from them, including that of police commissioner. For the black petty bourgeoisie it meant new opportunities. So under Young, for example, a mostly black law firm came to handle most of the municipal bonds; a black building contractor got an 87 million dollar building contract and a black businessman was awarded the contract for the cable TV franchise in Detroit. Young defended all this on the grounds that to help black businesses would open up jobs and services and make goods more available to the black community in general, a kind of trickle-down theory.

Young also used city finances to help create a few black businesses. The city lent one million dollars to a black company, Magnum Oil, which provided oil for city buses. At the same time, the rates charged were higher than what was paid for oil by most other cities. The black businesses like Magnum are too small to compete against the larger concerns, so they end up charging higher prices in order to survive. Thus it meant for the black workers of Detroit a process of trickle up.

Finally, in some cases, this aid turned into a way to reward Young’s friends, or just petty graft. This was the case with VISTA, a supposed sludge hauling company, set up by a black woman aide of Young’s. VISTA turned out to be a dummy corporation that didn’t even own the sludge hauling equipment needed. While it qualified as a minority contractor, it was really a front so a white owned corporation could get the business.

Of course in doing this, Young did nothing different than the white mayors have been doing for their friends for years. Outgoing Mayor Jane Bryne of Chicago gave away a million dollars to a contractor building a rail line to O’Hare Airport. The company went bankrupt; the line wasn’t finished. But it did come out that the contractor had been a contributor to Bryne’s reelection fund.

If Young sent some money towards the black businesses, still the lion’s share of city money went to the big capitalists, who, in this society, are not black. Young found city money to help Henry Ford finance his investment in the Renaissance Center, and to help Max Fisher today build luxury apartments next door. Young got funds and tax breaks for and gave his political support to GM to tear down the integrated working class neighborhood of Poletown to build its new plant. He gave repeated tax abatements to Chrysler. He also found the way in the midst of the economic crisis to subsidize those entrepreneurs who brought the Grand Prix and the Super Bowl to Detroit.

Young had claimed that electing him the mayor would mean a difference for black people. But in most cases, Young as mayor did exactly the same as what a white mayor would have done.

The example of Young shows that no matter what your militant beginning or your early ties to a social movement, if once in office you don’t do everything you can to encourage and rely on a mobilization of the population, you can only follow the system’s rules. And, of course, if you are a part of the Democratic Party and owe your election to your ties to the official machine, once in office, whether you are a black mayor or a white one, you have no possibility, except to play the role assigned to you. And that means putting aside the interest of the majority of the people, whether they are black or white.

Now with the election of Washington and Goode or the proposed candidates in other cities, we have men in the same position, only less militant in their origins and less tied to a social movement which could win a certain number reforms. Moreover, they come on the scene at a time when there are fewer possibilities for even small reforms for black people, given the current economic situation.

If we can see the limits of Young, what can be expected from the likes of Washington in much less favorable circumstances than Young faced?

Who Is Washington and What Does He Face?

Washington becomes the mayor in a period when the black community has been passive and, if anything, dominated by a sense of demoralization. Chicago is not a majority black city. Washington won the primary because he turned out a large enough black vote but also because the white vote was split almost in half between his two white opponents in the Democratic primary. Moreover, Chicago has a long tradition of racism both in the union movement and within the Democratic Party machine, large sections of which openly campaigned against him, putting out racist literature, and even in some cases helping to turn out the vote for his Republican opponent. Today after winning, Washington faces a city council where the majority, 29 out of 50, is opposed to him. And he comes to office in a period of economic crisis where sacrifice is the order of the day for all city governments.

It’s true that all of this stands in the way of Washington. But what’s more important is that Washington is not ready to mobilize people in Chicago to overcome these obstacles. In fact, Washington has been part of the Democratic machine in Chicago from the beginning of his career. While criticizing what he considers its excesses, he has not repudiated it. While he has identified himself with black community causes, he is not particularly known as a militant; he is known as a politician. As a lawyer who served a poor black constituency, he several times failed to show up to represent black people who had already paid him his legal fee. In his campaign he presented himself as the candidate of black people and the whites of the Gold Coast, the richest area of the city. In doing this he did nothing to challenge the hold that the white machine has had over the white workers, and he tied the poor black people to the interests of the wealthy petty bourgeoisie and bourgeoisie – most of whom are white.

So what can the black community of Chicago expect from him?

As with Young, so with Washington during the campaign, there was a sense of solidarity, and with his election, a sense of pride and accomplishment on the part of the black workers in Chicago. There is a sense of hope that now some things might change and at least black people will not have to live like second class citizens in their own city. There is a sense that white people better be more careful about how they act and the black workers now say in the white workers’ faces that white people can no longer assume that they will automatically get their way and have things in their favor.

Certainly having a black mayor will mean not having a racist in the chair at City Hall. It may mean a certain check on the racist Chicago police and the city functioning in general in a city known as one of the most racist in the country. Maybe some services will be more equitably distributed than before.

But even if the police and the city bureaucracy are held in check a little, it does not mean that the fundamental aspects of racism, deeply rooted in the way this society is organized, can be overcome by the election of Washington. Black people can expect little material improvement under Washington – in fact they can expect the opposite and there are already signs of this. Washington has supported new tax increases. He is threatening cutbacks of the city work force and city services. Even for the black politicians and the black business community he will have far less that he can give away and he will be watched much more closely if he tries to do it.

The Limits of the Black Mayors

The possibilities of the black mayors are thus very limited. They have no possibility at all to change society fundamentally through their office. They have no real possibility to change radically the distribution of wealth in the city.

The only thing such a mayor can do is to carry out his duties within the constraints of the already existing framework. Most of their decisions in fact are imposed on them both by the general situation of bourgeois society and by the government structure and laws restricting their power.

In the end this means that all they can do is carry out the work of the bourgeoisie. It is exactly why the bourgeoisie has no difficulty in accepting the election of such black mayors. And why, in some circumstances it could even find such elections to its advantage. Young and Washington and the other black mayors are all loyal Democrats who present the Democratic Party as the party of black people. They hold out the elections of Democrats as the means to solve black people’s problems. They ask black people to put them in office and then go home and let the politicians take care of things for them. They do all this first to bring votes into the Democratic Party. But in doing this they help to reintroduce or reinforce illusions in the system among black people.

But when the black politicians do this they stand in the way of the only possibility black people have to defend their interests, not to mention to change society – their own mobilization. It was such a mobilization during the civil rights movement and the urban rebellions that won the gains for black people that the politicians more and more try to take credit for.

If such a mobilization did exist, a mayor could help to bring about some changes, if he were ready to call to the population, to rely on the activity of the population, to encourage the population to take their own plight into their own hands and fight for changes.

If Washington and Jackson campaigned as real candidates today of black people they would talk a different language. They would say to black people, “What happens depends less on me and more on what you do. Without you, I can’t do anything. You must count on your own organization, on your own strength instead of counting on my election or my position as mayor or as a leader of the Democratic Party to do something for you.”

If Washington or Jackson were real representatives of the black population, they wouldn’t be afraid of a popular mobilization. They would encourage it as the best way for black people to protect themselves against the crisis and against racist attacks.

If they called on the masses of the black population to mobilize to defend their own interests, they would call on them to address their problems as poor people, as workers. Such a mobilization could begin to touch on the problems of all the poor people, black and white, of the workers, black and white. In organizing to defend their own interests, the black masses would defend the interests of all the poor and working class population. They could thereby make an example to the white workers; they could thereby offer room on their side for the white workers to join in the same fight for their common interests. Thus they could find a bridge which would allow at least a part of the white workers to escape from the racism which imprisons them. Maybe it would not still be enough to break down the racism of the white workers in a city like Chicago. We don’t know; but it’s the only way that the black masses have of addressing the problem.

But this is not what the black politicians propose. The only mobilization they look to is for black people to register, and vote them in office.

They encourage illusions in the system, elections and the Democratic Party; they chain the masses of black people to the interests of the bourgeoisie.

Concretely the only ones in the black community they serve are themselves and a small section of the black businessmen who improve their lot with the black politicians in office.

Their elections are not victories for the black workers and the poor.