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Thursday, Jan. 26, 2017 12:23 am

Form over function

Springfield’s “new” aldermanic government turns 30


I’m terrible at anniversaries, so I wasn’t surprised that I’d forgotten that this year marks 30 years since the City of Springfield changed from an at-large commissioner form of government to its present aldermanic form. For those readers who were too busy growing up to notice, the switch was the result of a 1987 consent decree that itself resulted from a federal Voting Rights Act lawsuit that charged that electing commissioners at large, as was then done, violated the Voting Rights Act because it so diluted the minority vote that African-American voters had no effective say in who ran the city.

Irony-lovers found much to savor in the change. The court’s guarantee of minority representation depended on the persistence of racial segregation in local housing that the city was trying, in its fashion, to undo. Also, to make Springfield more democratic the court imposed a system of local representation that its voters had rejected by referendum a decade previously. In 1978, Springfieldians were asked to adopt a council-manager government whose council, like the one imposed in 1987, would have been composed of 10 aldermen elected by district. They rejected the plan three to one. The change even lost in the mostly black eastside precincts whose residents it promised to help.

I thought at the time of the decree that the political assumptions underlying the decision were dubious. The court in 1987 assumed that a person of color can only be represented in government by other persons of color. To make sure that happens, the Voting Rights Act requires map drawers to give “special protection” to minorities, meaning districts containing mostly minorities can be gerrymandered to elect representatives of color. Illinois is among the two dozen or so states in which preserving “communities of interest” is allowed in the drawing of state legislative districts; Illinois did this in 2011 when the state protected minority populations from being split during legislative redistricting. As Pat Quinn put it at the time, “One of the purposes of the law is to make sure that our racial minorities, our language minorities, citizens who live in a particular area, get a fair chance to elect a person of their choice.”

Segregation by color is segregation by color, even if it is done with good intentions by governments hoping to achieve what is known as “descriptive representation.” The court assumed that white people are, if not irremediably racist, so deeply ignorant of the special situation of the un-white that they cannot effectively represent them. The idea that the worst black legislator at any level is better for the African-American community than the best white one is (to borrow Jeremy Bentham’s phrase) nonsense on stilts. So is the belief (shared by millions of white Americans during the Obama years) that the worst white president is better for the white community – whatever that is – than the best black one.

I don’t know, indeed can’t know, whether life has improved in a practical way for black Springfieldians because of the switch to aldermen elected by districts. I do know (because I covered it) that everything that troubles African-American aldermen today – the under-representation of minorities on the police force, the school achievement gap, the substandard housing on the east side, the lack of jobs for the ill-educated – troubled Springfield activists, black and white, 30 years ago.

In the terms of the voting rights case, the question of city government’s effectiveness was irrelevant. The intent of the consent decree was not to improve government but to broaden representation, and that it did. Of course it is a good thing that citizens’ identity is recognized as valid by one’s government, even if that government doesn’t serve their interests particularly well. But effective (as distinct from symbolic) representation is hard to achieve for any minority of any color or opinion when it has only one or two votes out of 10. In spite of the good work of our McNeils and Woodsons and Simpsons, little of what needed fixing in the black community got fixed, because what needs fixing is beyond the power of any city government to fix. City hall cannot halt the gradual disintegration of small, aging eastside houses, for example, or make poor kids want to learn or stop the structural shifts in the city’s economy that left the unskilled and under-educated without jobs.

The court put African-Americans on the city council, but it might not always be able to keep them there. The black population is dispersing into other wards, a result, it should be noted, of federal laws and market forces, not city policy. Black voters in any one ward will be less and less able to elect black representatives by themselves. I don’t think it’s a bad thing that “black issues” will have to be taken into account in more and more wards. But “more integrated” could end up meaning “less representative” under the law. That would be the ultimate irony – a future lawsuit arguing that the absence of discrimination discriminates against black voters.  

Contact James Krohe Jr. at


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