Tuesday, April 23, 2013

At Least We’re Not Detroit: Dog-Whistles And Intercity Rivalries


Is there anything more tedious than an intercity rivalry? Here, let me answer that for you: No. No, there isn’t. Unless it’s a sports rivalry, in which case it’s hilarious.
Generally speaking, though, American regionalism is irritating, and city-vs.-city animosity is worse. And at the pinnacle of city-vs.-city animosity is … New York vs. Chicago. Or vice versa.
On Sunday, the New York Times touched a nerve here in the Windy City when it published a book review by ex-pat New Yorker Rachel Shteir, now a professor at DePaul University, entitled “Chicago Manuals.” Purportedly a review of Thomas Dyja’s The Third Coast and two other books by Chicago-based authors, Shteir used the opportunity to vent a little:
“Poor Chicago,” a friend of mine recently said. Given the number of urban apocalypses here, I couldn’t tell which problem she was referring to. Was it the Cubs never winning? The abominable weather? Meter parking costing more than anywhere else in America — up to $6.50 an hour — with the money flowing to a private company, thanks to the ex-mayor Richard M. Daley’s shortsighted 2008 deal? Or was it the fact that in 2012, of the largest American cities, Chicago had the second-highest murder rate and the ­second-highest combined sales tax, as well as the ninth-highest metro foreclosure rate in the country? That it’s the third-most racially segregated city and is located in the state with the most underfunded public-employee pension debt? Was my friend talking about how a real estate investor bought The Chicago Tribune and drove it into bankruptcy? Or how 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton, who performed at Barack Obama’s inauguration, was shot dead near the president’s Kenwood home?
Wow. Um, okay. That’s a lot to pack into the opening paragraph of a book review. But, you know, whatev.
Unsurprisingly, many of my fellow Chicagoans were not impressed. Chicagoist – ironically, the (ahem) “second website by Gothamist LLC” – declared that Shteir “doesn’t get” our fair city, using this colorful metaphor to describe her piece:
Like a chimpanzee at a zoo, Shteir tosses a lot of feces around, hoping to hit some target.
While Bill Savage of Crain’s Chicago Business noted that Shteir’s erstwhile book review “stir[red] up a real shit-storm here” – to which I respond: Wait, you can say “shit storm” in Crain’s Chicago business? And what’s with all the scatological references, anyway?
But I digress.
The fact is, some of Shteir’s criticisms are valid, but the tone of her piece is, how shall I put this delicately? Bizarre? Unhinged? Emo?  All of the above?
Worse, though, is the way she rattles off clich├ęs about the city’s various and sundry “apocalypses”: The Cubs suck (really? That’s an “apocalypse”?); the government is corrupt; taxes are high; and, yes, that favorite right-wing meme, Chicago has “the second-highest murder rate” among large American cities (even though, through the first quarter of 2013, Chicago’s murder rate was way down from last year; but that doesn’t fit the narrative, so … move along … nothing to see here …).
Please. Get a new axe to grind, will you.
Nonetheless, all of that would be palatable, if comical, but for the ease with which Shteir, who’s white, slips (presumably unconsciously) into racially coded language when she levels her harshest criticism against Chicago: That it’s (gasp!) becoming like Detroit. No, seriously. Complaining of our native braggadocio, Shteir writes:
The city’s population, for example, is currently at 2.7 million, having dropped since a high of 3.6 million in 1950. But the bloviating roars on, as if hot air could prevent Chicago from turning into Detroit.
So Chicago is not Detroit, not yet. But the city is trapped by its location, its past, and what philosophers would have called its facticity — its limitations, given the circumstances. Boosterism has been perfected here because the reality is too painful to look at. Poor Chicago, indeed.
There you have it: So Chicago is not Detroit. Not yet.
She could just as easily have compared Chicago to, for example, St. Louis, which lost about half a million people from 1950 to 2009, but she went with Detroit because Detroit is the default “bad” city in America. You know, Detroit: Where all those poor black people live. Nobody wants to be Detroit.
Undoubtedly, that’s not what Shteir intended, but that is most certainly what white conservatives mean when they refer to the Motor City. “Detroit” is white conservative code for poor and black, and poor and black is … those people. The undersirables. The ones we don’t want to be.
The problem isn’t that Shteir accidentally used a racist dog-whistle when she suggested that Chicago risks becoming Detroit. The problem is, it never occurred to her that she was using a racist dog-whistle. 

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