Race, class and representation
Reinventing city government 30 years ago
Come fall, it will be 30 years since the City of Springfield’s new aldermanized city council first convened. I voted for it, and I wrote about it. A new system of representation had been forced by a lawsuit alleging that voters’ choices were ineluctably driven by race. The occasion gave me a chance to take a ride on one of my favorite hobby horses. Note: If you don’t know who Robert Bork was, consider yourself lucky.
From our paper of Oct. 1, 1987; edited for length.
. . . The press as usual paid too close attention to what the candidates said and not enough to who they are. The State Journal-Register for instance dutifully published what the candidates said about themselves, which is a little like asking Robert Bork whether he is qualified to sit on the Supreme Court. Of all the things which will shape their performance in the new city council – gender, education, party affiliation – the most crucial one – class – was talked about the least. . . . What were the candidates asked about instead? Sidewalks, mainly, or where they had their yard signs made. I did not see it mentioned anywhere that Mayor Houston used to drive a Cadillac and vacation in Las Vegas. No one wondered aloud whether voters might trust a man who married a woman named Bambi, as one aldermanic candidate did. And no one said a word publicly about toupees which just had to have been bought from a brother-in-law in the business; if a man can be swayed by relatives when it comes to hair, how will he resist them when it comes to hiring?
. . . There will be much that is new, or at least new since the last Springfield council of aldermen sat in 1911. For example, the new council will probably include for the first time a member or two of one of the city’s outcast social groups. I refer to graduates of the long-defunct east-side Feitshans High School. (Newcomers to the city should know that Feitshans was what Southeast High would be like if you took all the rich kids out of it.) . . .
Now two Feitshans grads are running for alderman, in separate wards, and each is favored to win. One is black and one is white. One earned a Ph.D. from a Big Ten school, and lists his fraternity membership on his campaign vitae; the other drives a flashy Lincoln, and while he holds a master’s degree from a lesser university he seems more comfortable with a coach’s whistle in his mouth than a subordinate clause.
So described, this is the world as Springfield has long known it. But the owner of the Ph.D. is the black one – Allan Woodson, running in Ward 10 – and the man in the Lincoln is Irv Smith, who is as white as his name, which at the moment is plastered all over Ward 8.
The new council, in short, will make clear what all sides in the voting rights suit generally failed to make clear, which is that clichés are no longer sufficient to describe the complexities of race, class and representation.
Consider Woodson’s candidacy in Ward 10. One of the assumptions central to the court case which resulted in the present elections was that black people could only be represented in the city council by other black people. If we accept that, must we not also accept the corollary that white people can only be represented by other white people? But Ward 10 is full of white people, being far more perfectly segregated than the “black” Ward 2, where I live. Nevertheless, nearly 1,300 people voted for Woodson. Did they not recognize their own interests? Unlikely; a sense of their own interests is what enables them to live in Ward 10. Did they not know Woodson is black? Impossible; he is well known.
What they did do was decide that blackness in this case didn’t matter. Woodson is an extremely attractive candidate, a textbook middle-class family man, active in church and do-gooder groups. His concerns are those of his neighbors (traffic lights mainly; folks spend a lot of time in cars in Ward 10) and they know it. I – who believe that in a more perfect world there wouldn’t be a Ward 10, it having been blown up and the rubble left standing as an example to planners everywhere – welcome his impending election because his experience as a black man and an eastsider leaves him more alert to certain citywide problems than any of his neighbors who think Ninth Street is the city line.
. . . On the face of it – and it is on the surface of things that the arguments in the voting rights suit are attached – the primary results confounded the assumption that white voters will not vote for qualified blacks. But even a defective argument in this case led to a happy conclusion, because the voting for the new council finally gave us a chance to prove it.
Contact James Krohe Jr. at CaptBogue@outlook.com.