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In Obama’s Chicago, lukewarm support for Clinton

On the struggling West Side, people see little prospect for change in a new president

Cook County Commissioner Richard Boykin was a loud and proud Hillary Clinton supporter in 2008. That choice made him an outcast among many of his fellow black elected officials in Chicago, who could not understand why he was not supporting homeboy Barack Obama.

Now, Boykin is again backing Clinton for president — but pretty much in name only. Eight years ago, he was a Clinton delegate to the Democratic convention. This time, he said, “I just haven’t done much.”

Ironically, part of Boykin’s dimming enthusiasm for Clinton has to do with his disappointment over President Obama’s inability to make a visible change in his West Side district. Indeed, the economic and crime problems may have gotten worse since his fellow Chicagoan moved into the White House.

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton sings during service at Mount Zion Fellowship Church in Highland Hills, Ohio. Black Baptist churches may not seem like an obvious match for Clinton, a white Methodist from the Chicago suburbs. But the Democratic presidential candidate, who has been criticized for her tentative or even awkward political skills, often seems most at ease in these churches where she has shared her faith for many years and earned a loyal following in the process.

AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

The commercial strips on much of the West Side are a grim collection of small carry-outs, convenience stores, discount marts and the occasional drugstore. There are few places to buy groceries and many places to buy liquor. Gun violence is at epidemic levels. And a decades-long economic tsunami that has swept away tens of thousands of good jobs shows no signs of receding.

“We are basically in a state of emergency,” Boykin said. “Yet, there are no extraordinary measures being proposed by the president who happens to be from Chicago.”

Local politicians and community leaders say the continuing struggles of places like Chicago’s West Side have left many people numb to the promises emanating from the presidential campaign trail.

Benny Lee, a former gang leader and co-founder of the National Alliance for the Empowerment of the Formerly Incarcerated, said pressing concerns of daily existence reduce the back and forth of a presidential campaign to little more than background noise for the people he works with.

“The average person living in these neighborhoods barely pays the dialogue any mind,” he said. “I understand that the president does not directly affect local government. There is Congress, and state government and local officials. But most people don’t understand the process and blame the president, and are disappointed.”

Even so, Obama continues to enjoy overwhelming support among African-Americans, according to opinion polls. Likewise, Clinton, who grew up in Park Ridge, a northwestern suburb of Chicago, enjoys a huge lead over Republican Donald Trump among black voters both in her home state and around the country. That is one reason that Illinois was considered a lock for Clinton even before Trump’s support began sliding after a series of women publicly accused him of making unwanted sexual advances.

Still, as Election Day nears, Clinton strategists have said they are concerned about an “enthusiasm gap” that is hard to pinpoint in opinion polls but shines through in interviews with prospective voters. Community leaders in Chicago say that gap is fed by the stubborn economic problems ensnaring many struggling African-American neighborhoods.

Demonstrators protest the shooting death of 16-year-old Pierre Loury near the location where he was killed on April 12, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois.

Scott Olson/Getty Images

In March 2009, shortly after Obama took office in the midst of a deep recession, the black unemployment rate in Illinois was 14.4 percent, and nationally it was 13.3 percent. More than seven years later, the black jobless rate in Illinois stood at 15 percent, the highest of any state, or according to an analysis by Valerie Wilson, a researcher at the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington think tank. That was nearly double the national black unemployment rate of 8.6 percent at the end of June, and far above the state’s overall unemployment rate of 6.4 percent.

Given that harsh reality, the Clinton campaign’s pledge to make “the biggest investment in good-paying jobs since World War II” by pushing new infrastructure, small business, manufacturing and clean energy, barely raises an eyebrow in some of the state’s most depressed precincts, many of which are in Chicago.

“So many people are disheartened with the system altogether,” said the Rev. Walter Jones, executive director of Fathers Who Care, a social service group in West Garfield Park, one of the poorest and most violent neighborhoods in Chicago. “There are a great many people who initially had high hopes and aspirations related to Obama’s election, but now they have lost faith and hope. Now Hillary comes along, and their taste buds are tainted.”

The aftereffects of the recession – which officially ended seven years ago – come on top of a colossal loss of blue-collar jobs that began in the late 1960s and continued for decades.

Indeed, it has been a couple of generations since the West Side was an economic hub of work-a-day Chicago. International Harvester left in 1969. More than 10,000 jobs left the neighborhood when Sears, Roebuck & Co. relocated from the West Side to a downtown skyscraper and left the city altogether in the 1990s. Thousands more were lost when Sunbeam and Zenith closed up shop. Afterward, Western Electric bolted. Then in 2001, Brach candy closed its West Side plant.

In all, tens of thousands of jobs evaporated from the West Side alone, leaving behind a bleak post-industrial landscape and an economically fragile community. One neighborhood, North Lawndale, once home to NBA legends Isiah Thomas and Kevin Garnett and the rapper Twista, has lost more than half its residents since the 1970s.

An unidentified student from the North Lawndale College Prep High School sits on a bus for the trip home on Chicago's Westside, Friday, Nov. 14, 2008.

An unidentified student from the North Lawndale College Prep High School sits on a bus for the trip home on Chicago’s Westside, Friday, Nov. 14, 2008.

AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast

Similar shifts have devastated neighborhoods in cities across the industrial Midwest, where the middle class was built on a foundation of decent-paying factory jobs. What’s left behind is an economic mess that has proved to be too big for the political solutions devised to clean it up. Enterprise zones, empowerment zones, community development financing, block grants, small-business loans — none have been able to fix the broken economy in the city’s poorest neighborhoods.

In recent decades, joblessness has become the norm for young black men in Chicago, regardless of who is in the White House. A report released earlier this year by the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Great Cities Institute found that in Cook County, which includes Chicago, 45.5 percent of black men between ages 16 and 24 were neither working nor in school in 2014. Only 17.7 percent of young Hispanic men and 9.1 percent of white men were both out of school and out of work.

And in some West Side neighborhoods — Austin, North Lawndale, West Garfield Park, where researchers say a majority of young black men have criminal records — as many as three in four young black men are out of school and out of work, the report said.

“For many young men, particularly those who have criminal backgrounds, the only readily available jobs are minimum wage jobs, and many of them are in the suburbs and people don’t have the means to go back and forth,” said Lee, of the National Alliance for the Empowerment of the Formerly Incarcerated. “Sometimes, people take these jobs only to find out that they are spending more money to get out there than they are making.”

Quiwana Bell, chief operating officer of the Westside Health Authority, an Austin-based social service group that focuses on young adults, said that even now with social activism rising to heights not seen since the 1960s, many of her clients never make their way into the regular flow of society, nor do they seem to have any political awareness.

Half of students in a recent survey were untraceable after leaving middle school, leaving researchers to conclude that they moved to a new school district, dropped out, or worse. Many never work, open a bank account or vote. Their entire lives are tied to the informal economy and shaped by the code of the streets, she said.

“One group of kids out here is completely impassioned about social justice. Another group is completely isolated from every part of mainstream society,” she said. “They just don’t see an entry point to the mainstream.”

Bell said violence, and the always looming threat of violence, has left many neighbors wary of one another, and many young people living in fear. In that atmosphere, the idea of a jobs program or any other presidential promise falls far short.

“You are not going find many people around here who are enthusiastic about Hillary,” Bell said. “People believe her presidency will be more of the same. Just the status quo, when what we need is a paradigm shift.”

A voter (L) casts her ballot at a voting station in Garfield Park Conservatory November 4, 2008 in Chicago, Illinois.

A voter (L) casts her ballot at a voting station in Garfield Park Conservatory November 4, 2008 in Chicago, Illinois.

Scott Olson/Getty Images

Bell said she has heard a few people voice support for Trump, despite a general feeling that some of his statements have been hostile to blacks and other minorities. “I hear people say, ‘I hope Trump wins so we can kick the top off everything and get it started,’ ” she said. “I ask them what ‘it’ is. And they tell me, ‘It is real change. At least that might be better than where we are.’ ”

Frank Brim, a Chicago Fire Department captain, and executive director of the 160-player Garfield Park Little League, grew up in the notorious Robert Taylor Homes, a huge South Side public housing project that was demolished beginning in 1998. He chose to raise his daughter and two sons — who are now grown and thriving – on the West Side, where his wife grew up.

He noted that the West Side’s economic woes have contributed to severe social repercussions that are familiar in struggling African-American communities across the country. Most of the families in the area are headed by women. And most of the men who are around are in no position to help with things like Little League, leaving him and his handful of coaches to shoulder an extra burden. He said since starting the program in 2008 he has women — some who knew little about baseball – coaching teams. At times, he has simultaneously coached as many as three teams himself.

“I used to think, ‘Men all over the place volunteer. Why don’t we have more men out volunteering?’ ” Brim said during an interview at the North Side firehouse where he works. “But when you really look at it, people who volunteer have gainful employment. And you don’t have a lot of gainful employment around there.”

Brim said that is a bitter pill to swallow after having Obama in the White House for nearly eight years. And it affects how people see Clinton, he said.

“Most of the people thought that when Barack got elected, everything was going to change for black America,” Brim said. “But that hasn’t happened, and now this election feels anticlimactic. Most black people know they can’t vote for Donald Trump, and they have to vote for Hillary. But they are not exactly excited about it.”

Michael A. Fletcher is a senior writer at The Undefeated. He is a native New Yorker and longtime Baltimorean who enjoys live music and theater.