By Caleb Dunson, Chicago Votes Inaugural Brian Sleet Fellow
When I took United States History as a high school freshman, I was inspired by the periods in time where the government enacted enormous change. The Radical Republicans were able to start post-civil war reconstruction, Franklin Delano Roosevelt used the New Deal to pull the US out of a depression, and Lyndon B Johnson led Great Society reforms that included the passage of the civil rights and voting rights acts. Each of those points in history stood out to me as examples of how the government could protect the rights of marginalized groups and advance the interests of the American people. Now, with the Biden administration beginning and Democrats retaining control of the House and Senate, the government once again has the opportunity to improve the lives of its people. Our nation is on the precipice of transformative change, and that has led me to wonder if Chicago’s government is positioned to extend that change to the local level.
It’s no secret that our city is in a predicament, with rapidly rising debts that burden local government, severe racial inequality that harms Black and Brown communities, and a declining population that indicates Chicago’s fall in stature. In this climate, our city’s elected officials must consider how they plan to maximize the support of a now friendly federal government to resolve some of Chicago’s most pressing issues: economic inequality, ineffective policing, and education disparities.
Economic inequality in Chicago is disgraceful. For a city that was one of the major hubs of the Great Migration and is home to some of the world’s top companies, economic mobility for Black Chicagoans is disappointingly stagnant. The racial wealth gap is equally disparaging, with predominantly white neighborhoods often serving as centers of economic abundance and predominantly Black neighborhoods often crushed by high poverty rates. To make matters worse, the pandemic has exasperated worldwide economic inequality, placing a disproportionate amount of financial strain on minority households.
To date, the City of Chicago has largely focused on capital investment programs like Invest South/West, which earmarks hundreds of millions of dollars in funding for economic development on the city’s south and west sides. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, local politicians have engaged in awe-inspiring acrobatics –– including allowing restaurants to open for indoor dining and establishing several small business grant and loan funds –– to keep Chicago’s local enterprises open. True, small businesses are the lifeblood of our economy, and investing in their development and sustenance is important, but people should be prioritized ahead of capital in economic development efforts.
Economic equity is a known priority for Mayor Lightfoot, and to live up to that commitment she must put money directly in the hands of Chicagoans. That means increased funding for the existing rental assistance program as we continue to grapple with the pandemic. And in a post-pandemic economy, that means more job training programs for high growth sectors, an increased effort to establish affordable housing, and a renewed focus on empowering intra-community entrepreneurship. The Biden administration will likely be open to granting federal assistance for the nation’s top cities, and Chicago’s elected officials should use that to obtain the funding necessary to finance these economic revitalization projects.
From Jon Burge to Jason Van Dyke, the Chicago Police Department (CPD) has a grisly history of racism, abuse of power, and lack of accountability. A US Justice Department investigation held the CPD responsible for a pattern of racially targeted civil rights violations, which led a federal judge to establish a consent decree demanding substantial reform within the department. This action came in the aftermath of LaQuan McDonald’s death, but as of late nothing has really changed.
In the summer of 2020, George Floyd’s murder returned Chicago’s inaction on police reform to the spotlight as cities across the country reflected on racism within their law enforcement ranks. What became disappointingly clear was that, though Mayor Lightfoot had vaguely promised accountability and reform in her mayoral campaign, she (perhaps unsurprisingly) failed miserably at producing substantive change. A June examination of the city’s progress on the consent decree found that Chicago “missed more than 70 percent of the deadlines” set in the court order. The city’s rationale was, in essence, that change takes time. Reasonable enough, unless you consider the city’s attempted coverup of a disturbing police raid and its continued inaction on the consent decree’s mandates. It seems like Chicago’s elected officials aren’t even trying to learn from their mistakes; and in a city that has long struggled with crime prevention, the last thing we need is an inept, inhuman, and insolent police department enabled by complacent politicians.
Police reform in Chicago is difficult, especially because of high crime rates and the need to negotiate labor agreements with a stubborn police union. Some have called for defunding the police, a task that proves complicated when one considers the plethora of challenges the proposal has already faced. Others have been adamant about abolishing the police, but without a politically acknowledged alternative to law enforcement, conceptualizing such a reality proves difficult to many I will not pretend to know the best course of action for the city, but I know that the Chicago Police Department needs to be radically transformed to meet the needs of our city’s residents. At the very least, that means being proactive about implementing the mandates of the consent decree, better training officers in de-escalation tactics, and establishing a system of accountability that holds officers to the highest possible standards of conduct.
The current state of Chicago Public Schools (CPS) is not a complete disaster, but it leaves much to be desired. CPS struggles with a racial achievement gap, as majority Black and Latinx schools consistently underachieve compared to majority-white schools, likely due to disparate funding and resource allocation.
In the Lightfoot era, Chicago Public Schools has faced high debts and political pressure from the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), all while trying to rebrand as a school system committed to equity. Clashes with the Chicago Teachers Union are well documented, and though they occur over seemingly different disputes, each conflict follows the same formula. The Chicago Teachers Union demands more resources from Chicago Public Schools (and rightfully so), who in turn are unable to extend support without jeopardizing the school system’s financial future. The result: teacher’s strikes that lend themselves well to political opportunism and petty squabbling on both sides, all the while students are left to suffer.
Unfortunately, Chicago Public Schools continues to overpromise and underdeliver in its educational mission. And though educational attainment metrics were ticking up for the school system pre-pandemic, that progress is now all but lost, and there isn’t much anyone can do. For the time being, Chicago Public Schools should continue in their efforts to extend technology access to all of their students for the remainder of the pandemic. In the long term, CPS must use the Biden administration’s favorable view of public schools to lobby for increased federal funding and distribute that funding so that the most disadvantaged schools can purchase new learning materials, hire additional staff, and complete essential capital improvement projects.
What Comes Next
Big government is back in style, but for that to mean anything to Chicagoans, our local elected officials must use the country’s political momentum to change the city for the better. Like the Radical Republicans, FDR, and Lyndon B Johnson, Chicago politicians have an opportunity to be a part of a movement that will end up in the history books, and they must not waste it. Young people also have an important role to play in the next era of political reforms and must continue their advocacy work, standing firm in their commitment to holding elected officials accountable. Inaction and indecision are unacceptable; now is the time for results.