Playing Race Politics As a Zero-Sum Game

Don Wycliff, Chicago Tribune, March 17, 2009

At least for now, you can drop the epithets–“embattled” and “beleaguered”–and just call him “Sen. Roland Burris.” And barring a decision by that Downstate prosecutor looking into the circumstances of Burris’ appointment by former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, it’s likely to remain just “Sen. Roland Burris.”

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As soon as leaders of Chicago’s black community began standing up and embracing him, all of the Burris-should-resign talk by the likes of Gov. Pat Quinn and Sen. Richard Durbin went silent.

Neither man needed to be reminded twice that his own future electoral prospects, as well as those of the Illinois Democratic Party generally, depend on the enthusiastic support of Chicago’s huge black electorate–and that that support might be seriously endangered if they continued to beat the drums for the removal from office of Burris, the Senate’s only black member.

There’s something deeply satisfying about that: A once-despised and disfranchised group has learned how to wield its electoral power and command respect in the political marketplace.

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And now, Chicago’s black political establishment, in the name of their constituents, have closed ranks around him.

In a recent discussion on WVON radio, Northeastern Illinois University political scientist Robert Starks observed that the black community has to stand behind the likes of Burris and Cook County Board President Todd Stroger because once such positions are lost to the community, they cannot, as a practical matter, be regained.

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But should blacks support grievously flawed incumbents like Burris and Stroger for that reason, any more than whites should have supported, say, former Ald. Edward Vrdolyak during his days as leader of the white, anti-Harold Washington opposition of the Council Wars era? “Politics ain’t beanbag,” a Chicago ethnic commentator of an earlier era famously quipped. That holds true in this era as much as in Finley Peter Dunne’s.

But if the game is always played as a cynical, zero-sum, our-loss-is-their-gain affair, can we ever hope to elevate it to something more than mud-wrestling?

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