Quick Hit Ellyn Fortino Monday April 25th, 2016, 5:02pm

With Emanuel On The Ropes, Politicos Say It's Time To Address Chicago's Racial Inequities

A South Side alderman says the Chicago City Council should take action to better address racial inequities in the city.

Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th), chairman of the Chicago City Council's Black Caucus, spoke on a panel Monday morning about opportunities for government entities to advance racial equity. The panel discussion was part of the daylong "Midwest Convening On Racial Equity" event, hosted by Communities United and other organizations at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Sawyer said numerous Chicago neighborhoods, particularly communities of color, are in need of greater resources and investments. These neighborhoods "want parity" and "the same things that other neighborhoods have," the alderman explained.

"I think that's part of government's role -- to advocate and to push for resources throughout our neighborhoods," the alderman said. "We need to have that concerted effort citywide in our neighborhoods to bring parity all over the city ... We want all the things that (other neighborhoods) have -- coffee shops, restaurants, sports bars, Gymborees. And these are the things that we're lacking right now."

With Mayor Rahm Emanuel in a politically weakened state after the November release of dashcam video showing the fatal police shooting of teenager Laquan McDonald, Sawyer said now is "an opportune time" for black, Latino and other aldermen to push a city council agenda to improve racial equity across Chicago's communities.

The "council is supposed to drive the agenda," Sawyer said, but "over the last several years, that has not been the case."

Now is "an opportune time for us to work together to get things done," Sawyer said, adding that members of the Black and Latino Caucuses have "been talking a lot more lately about how we can develop those relationships, because we're both losing."

Sawyer spoke on the panel with Cook County Commissioner Jesus "Chuy" Garcia, a representative from the National League of Cities and the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board's deputy superintendent.

Panelists were asked about steps governments can take to advance racial equity. Speakers agreed that governments must first acknowledge that inequalities exist.

Some racial inequities "are institutionalized, some are self-contained, and we're gonna have to acknowledge all of those before we get past it," Sawyer said.

"We have to talk about all of these things in order for us to achieve racial equity," he said, explaining that it will "require a touchy, and unpleasant and uncomfortable conversation for a lot of us."

Garcia spoke, in part, about how budgetary policies can impact communities of color. As a negative example, Garcia pointed to the state budget impasse in Illinois, now in its tenth month. Chicago State University, which has a predominately black student population, has been pushed to the brink of closure, and many social service providers have had to cut staff and services, or close altogether, as a direct result of the Illinois budget standoff. Chicago State University, however, will soon see some short-term financial relief under an emergency funding plan for higher education institutions, which was signed by Gov. Bruce Rauner on Monday. 

"I can't believe that there hasn't been a greater level of indignation with respect to the state budget impasse, especially by the most affected communities," Garcia said. "I'm at a loss to comprehend how people can take so much and not raise as much hell as I think is necessary to help move the dialogue in Springfield, 'cause it's unconscionable, it's criminal, and the implications [of the budget impasse] are huge."

In addition to Communities United, the Center for Social Inclusion, the Coalition Advancing Racial Equity and the Government Alliance on Race and Equity co-hosted the "Midwest Convening On Racial Equity." The event, attended by government and community leaders from Illinois and other Midwestern states, included panel discussions and a series of workshops centered on how government policies and community partnerships can improve racial equity.

A second panel discussion covered the topic of the media and communicating about race, with a portion of the talk focused on the McDonald police shooting case in Chicago. Panelists included Jamie Kalven with the Invisible Institute, a Chicago-based journalistic production company; Chicago Sun-Times columnist Mary Mitchell; and an official with the Center for Social Inclusion.

Kalven is a journalist-activist who first reported on the existence of the McDonald shooting video. He talked about the McDonald case's public impact.

"Something about this story ultimately broke through into the moral imagination, into people's sympathies, but also became an avenue for people to perceive and begin to understand and inquire into the systemic conditions" within the Chicago police department and other institutions, he said.

Mitchell said Chicago's traditional media dropped the ball on their initial coverage of the McDonald story.

"This was a young man black man in the city of Chicago who didn't have a voice," she said. "We fell down on the job, because we were supposed to give people like him a voice in this city, and we did not."

Kalven said the "official narrative in Chicago has collapsed" because of the McDonald case. As a result, there is a "huge opportunity" for reporters to "tell richer, more complex stories" and to "raise questions that otherwise are easy to deflect."

"But," he said, "we need to elevate our game to be worthy in the moment."

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