For all of the media hype that Barack Obama is a great unifier of peoples, that was not his position on October 24, 2001, seven years ago today, when the Chicago Tribune’s David Mendell (now an Obama biographer) and Gary Washburn reported Obama was concerned at the "problem" of black people moving into the suburbs and voting there, making it harder to consolidate districts for black politicians. This leads to an odd dialogue on the political benefits of housing segregation:
Because African-Americans are slowly moving into traditionally white neighborhoods or to the suburbs, black aldermen are finding it difficult to draw a new ward map that will preserve the current number of 20 majority black districts. Black political power has always relied on blacks being massed in segregated neighborhoods.
It is becoming clearer to black political leaders that the remap struggle promises to be replayed in the future if the city continues to diversify at near the pace of the 1990s. The issue also arises as the Hispanic population is increasing dramatically, leading to a push for more Latino wards.
"As long as we have hardened racial attitudes reflected in our voting patterns for minorities--to elect one of their own--they still need to have a substantial voting-age majority in neighborhoods and communities," observed state Sen. Barack Obama (D-Chicago). "And with incremental integration, we're finding this is harder to do."
This story is not unique to Chicago. From Los Angeles to Orlando, white, black and Latino politicians are wrestling with how to divide power fairly in a country where whites are becoming a smaller proportion of the overall population, but minorities are breaking free of clustered housing patterns.
"Geographic concentration is clearly critical for political power for minorities, and that is the one benefit that segregation provides," said Roderick Harrison, a demographer with the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington. "I think there needs to be some new, sophisticated strategies to broaden political power if we are going to start seeing racially integrated suburbs."
If Obama thinks "hardened racial attitudes" about minorities electing "one of their own" is a problem to be overcome, it’s certainly not being overcome in 2008, when every pundit expects an almost-unanimous black vote for Obama in this presidential election.