What’s the state of race in America?

What’s the state of race in America?
Photo credits, on the left, Chasity Wells-Armstrong (in red) photo courtesy of Chasity for Mayor. On the right, Kankakee Mayor Nina Epstein said she's planning for the loss of taxes it received from corporate satellite offices set up in the city. (William DeShazer, Chicago Tribune)

Maybe things are not as bad as they seem?  Although bigotry has made a strong comeback under the guise of “an end to political correctness,” we have not slid back to the 1950s, 60s, or another era.

There is evidence of that in a Mayoral race just south of Chicago, in Kankakee, Illinois.

Kankakee is a working class small city with big city problems.  High crime, few good jobs, and a white political machine that has held an iron grasp on power for decades.

It’s the same political machine that gave the State of Illinois George Ryan and one of his henchmen who also was sentenced to prison.  It still exists, but it is a bit rusty, a bit more stupid, but it still exists.

The community has changed over the decades.  Real Estate is cheap in Kankakee County and rents are low.  When Cabrini Green closed in Chicago many people made the hour drive south of the loop to try and escape the violence of Cabrini Green.

Street gangs are now a national business, fueled by the drug trade.  Kids living in poverty see a chance to make easy money and there is no other path out so they turn to the gangs and the drug trade.

Kankakee is a fertile ground for the gangs.  The city does no economic development that is meaningful.  The good jobs left and unlike the Southern Suburbs, Will, to their North, and Champaign to the South, Kankakee County has not enjoyed the economic rebirth that has gone on nearby.

Machines don’t care much about rebirth.  They care about serving themselves.  At least the stupid machines work that way.

There is an historic election underway for Mayor of Kankakee.  Nina Epstein, the sitting mayor is White and part of the Country Club set.  Married to a retired Dentist, and living in the shadow of the Country Club, she has been mayor for 8 years.

In that period of time, she has not done much as Mayor.  The town has continued to spiral down, and her contribution to stopping the slide is to get in a cheap supermarket, two dollar stores and a truck stop and car wash smack in the middle of town.  She has also had a growth in bars.  There are more bars than Churches in the City.

Her Challenger is Chasity Wells-Armstrong, an African-American who sits on the City Council and works for a US Congressman.  She has a Master’s Degree in Social Work and has had an award-winning career.  She has a more global view of the World than the Mayor who doesn’t reach out to growing communities to see what they are doing, and adopting what works.

Violence and poverty have strong grips on Kankakee.  Many who live there work two and three low-wage jobs to make ends meet.

Kankakee has never been open racially.  It is not a model on how two races can live together in harmony.  Whites always run things.  That is changing and many of the residents don’t like it.

Racism is not often overt in America, the movement against political correctness notwithstanding.  Racism takes on subtle forms.  There are many examples of it in this small town, but let me cite two with which I have first person experience.

A man came to a group on Facebook, and said, “I don’t support her.  She doesn’t have the experience to be mayor.”   It is true that some people are not qualified for office.  However, someone who has worked in public policy for years, works for Congress now, sits on the City Council, holds a Master’s Degree certainly must be qualified?

Not if they are African-American and running against a White Mayor who has a Bachelor’s Degree and whose occupation before the election was a local socialite.  In this case, the lack of qualification was a placeholder for race.

Many in this struggling community of 27,000 don’t care who the Mayor is as long as the mayor is white.  Evidence of that claim can be seen two years ago in a City Council Election.

In that election pitted a White Barber against an African-American Businessman and head of the NAACP for a city council seat.  The African American was better educated and much more articulate than the Barber.  When the Barber speaks it is almost painful to listen to.  The Barber’s sole contribution to public policy was his statement that he would do what the Mayor told him to do.

The Barber won.  Whites in the district told me they voted for someone less qualified because they wanted someone who would not represent only Blacks.

That is a common fear in White America.  The fear is an unfounded fear.  It too is a placeholder for racism.

When the two resumes of the two women are laid side-by-side, there is no question or debate who is the most qualified candidate.  Ms. Wells-Armstrong has the stronger resume.  Coupled with the Mayor having not done much to end the economic misery and violence in the City over the past 8 years, one would think it is an easy race for the challenger.

It should be but it isn’t an easy race.

This election is a historic first for this small city.  An African-American is on the ballot and in serious contention for the highest office in the city.  There is a bright spot.  Kankakee County, not the City, elected a Republican African-American as the County Treasurer last November.

While many fear we are going backward on racial issues in America, history has shown us that once people are empowered they aren’t going back.

Ms. Wells-Armstrong understands that as a Woman of Color she will have to work twice as hard as her White counterparts.

It will be interesting to see if the city can put race aside and vote for change.  We’ll know on Tuesday.

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