How To Botch Your Stand for Racial Justice

Rep. Anne Stava-Murray’s young political career is already on the skids. Her victory over a Republican incumbent in a deep red Illinois Assembly district drew broad attention. Before she was even sworn in, she used that attention to launch a campaign for the US Senate against a Democratic incumbent. Her complaints about sexual harassment at inaugural events seemed perhaps a tad overblown and unhelpful. Then last week she decided to tackle white supremacy in Naperville…On Facebook…In an offhand comment on an unrelated matter in which she also described her negative feelings about her neighborhood.

Republicans pounced. They’ve issued noisy statements denouncing her comments and a GOP City Councilman in Naperville is discussing a formal rebuke. She’s pretty much done now, neutralizing what ought to have been a huge win for Democrats in DuPage County.

Committing a career-ending gaffe during one’s first weeks in office is unfortunate, but this situation is worse. With a blundering, undisciplined plunge into the most contentious issue in American life, Stava-Murray has saddled the next Democratic nominee with an awkward question they’ll face at every campaign appearance. Whoever tries to win the state legislative seat she cavalierly abandoned must either summarize the history of white supremacy in a 30 second soundbite, or repudiate her statement entirely. Guess which approach they are most likely to choose.

This leads us to the most painful consequence of her gaffe. Through clumsiness and hubris, Stava-Murray has turned a crucial issue with life or death consequences into a laugh line, complicating future efforts to achieve racial justice in Chicago.

What did she actually say? In response to another user’s Facebook comment complaining about Naperville in broad, highly unflattering terms she wrote:

“I actually wanted to move to Oak Park but stayed to work on my community. Our history of white supremacist policies is ongoing.”

To start with, is she right? Does Naperville, and for that matter most of the rest of DuPage County, have a history of white supremacist policies that are ongoing? The answer of course, is yes, but perhaps there’s a more productive way to raise this topic.

Needless to say, white people don’t like to hear about racism. We shouldn’t avoid those confrontations, but don’t take them lightly. White fragility is legendary. Nice, seemingly sane white people will go red-faced and sputtering at the slightest suggestion that racism still exists somewhere, in almost any form. Bring that subject down the level of their own neighborhood and prepare for fireworks.

How do we attack the infrastructure that preserves white supremacy in places like Naperville? Start by identifying the elements of that infrastructure and bringing them to light. How do we fail? By leveling unspecific, blanket charges of racism against people who don’t even understand what we’re talking about.

As a legislator, Stava-Murray had (in the past tense) an opportunity to raise this volatile topic within the context of concrete public policy. Instead of popping off on Facebook using language familiar only to other insiders, she could have sponsored legislation or pressured bureaucrats on a consequential issue.

How, exactly, does Naperville perpetuate white supremacy? One of the most powerful levers used to keep Naperville securely white is a set of superficially race-neutral housing and zoning policies engineered to block black families’ access. Chicago’s western suburbs are overwhelmingly white thanks to explicitly racist lending and real estate policies enacted more than half a century ago. They remain white today thanks in part to zoning decisions capitalizing on those earlier, now illegal practices. Those continuing policies have left Naperville out of compliance with state mandates on housing access. Leaving aside for a moment other pressing issues of police conduct, school segregation, and public employment, that compliance problem is a vulnerability a principled and competent public servant might have leveraged toward progress.

Those state mandates are largely toothless, which is something an adult progressive legislator might have addressed. Pressure brought by a representative from that area would have had particular resonance in a fight. With a cooler head, a little thought, some effort to build community support, and the slightest bit of discipline, we might be having a long-overdue dialogue over the exploitative racist outcomes of supposedly “color-blind” public policies. We aren’t. That’s a painful lost opportunity, the difference between virtue-signaling and real political progress.

After sitting at the middle of a big win for Democrats in the suburbs, Stava-Murray is already sliding to the margins, well on her way to becoming a provincial Jill Stein. Democrats will have to start from zero, fighting all over again to take this newly competitive seat next year. Hopefully next time there will be a substantive primary contest leading to the nomination of a credible candidate willing to perform the difficult, unglamorous aspects of the job. Stava-Murray isn’t making that challenge any easier for Democrats.

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