After Rahm Emanuel’s Neoliberal Nightmare, the Next Chicago Mayor Must Embrace Reparations

Emanuel’s pro-corporate policies ravaged Black and Latinx communities across Chicago. His successor will be tasked with reversing this trend.

Saqib Bhatti September 5, 2018

Rahm Emanuel is leaving, but the damage he's caused needs to be reversed. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

This week, Chicagoans cel­e­brat­ed Rahm Emanuel’s announce­ment that he will not seek anoth­er term as may­or. But while Emanuel’s depar­ture is wel­come news to many, the next may­or of Chica­go will have to come up with an aggres­sive plan to repair the dam­age that Emanuel’s finan­cial poli­cies have inflict­ed on the city’s Black and Lat­inx com­mu­ni­ties. Oth­er­wise the dev­as­ta­tion that Emanuel’s tenure in office wreaked on Chicago’s com­mu­ni­ties of col­or will be with us for decades to come.

The next mayor needs to aggressively raise revenue from the wealthy parts of the city in order to repair the damage to the South and West Sides.

May­or Emanuel sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly mon­e­tized pain in com­mu­ni­ties of col­or to enrich his Wall Street back­ers. Since he took office in May 2011, Chica­go has paid $346 mil­lion in police mis­con­duct set­tle­ments and judg­ments. Emanuel paid a large por­tion of these costs by tak­ing out bonds, which must be paid back with inter­est. The inter­est and fees on these bonds add up to hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars, which the city pays before ensur­ing there is fund­ing for crit­i­cal pub­lic ser­vices. When faced with a bud­get crunch, Emanuel closed men­tal health clin­ics, which could have played an impor­tant role in pre­vent­ing peo­ple of col­or from hav­ing adverse con­tact with racist police officers.

In 2017, the may­or bor­rowed $225 mil­lion to pay for future police mis­con­duct set­tle­ments and judg­ments. In oth­er words, Emanuel gave his bud­dies on Wall Street an advance pay­ment on the lives of Black and Lat­inx Chicagoans whom he knows his police depart­ment will bru­tal­ize or mur­der at some point in the future.

Sim­i­lar­ly, the may­or and his appointees on the school board refused to take legal action against the banks that fraud­u­lent­ly sold the city and school dis­trict tox­ic swap deals. Chica­go Pub­lic Schools paid banks such as Bank of Amer­i­ca $36 mil­lion a year for these tox­ic swaps — enough mon­ey to reverse the 50 school clos­ings Emanuel over­saw in 2013. But not only did Emanuel refuse to take legal action against the banks, he actu­al­ly signed mul­ti­ple agree­ments waiv­ing Chicago’s right to recoup its loss­es through legal action.

Emanuel also used the city’s Tax Incre­ment Financ­ing (TIF) pro­gram as a slush fund that drained mon­ey from the city’s neigh­bor­hoods and schools in com­mu­ni­ties of col­or and fun­neled it into tax sub­si­dies for devel­op­ers and wealthy cor­po­ra­tions in the rich­er, whiter parts of the city.

All of these finan­cial shenani­gans are part of the neolib­er­al régime that has dom­i­nat­ed City Hall for the past few decades under Emanuel and his pre­de­ces­sor, Richard M. Daley. Like Don­ald Trump, they believed mak­ing Chica­go great again meant bring­ing back the white peo­ple who had aban­doned the city for the sub­urbs dur­ing white flight. In order to lure rich white folks back to the city, they ignored the needs of Chicago’s com­mu­ni­ties of col­or, whom they did not deem wor­thy of the city’s resources. While defend­ing the clo­sure of schools in Chicago’s Black neigh­bor­hoods, Emanuel report­ed­ly told Chica­go Teach­ers Union Pres­i­dent Karen Lewis, 25 per­cent of these kids are nev­er going to be any­thing. They are nev­er going to amount to any­thing. And I’m not going to throw resources at them.”

Daley and Emanuel repealed pro­gres­sive cor­po­rate tax­es and fun­neled tax mon­ey from the neigh­bor­hoods into down­town. They man­u­fac­tured bud­get crises in order to jus­ti­fy the pri­va­ti­za­tion of the city’s infra­struc­ture, the char­ter­i­za­tion of its school dis­trict, and attacks on city and school dis­trict employ­ees and their pen­sions. The peren­ni­al bud­get crises that result­ed from these irre­spon­si­ble deci­sions were then used to jus­ti­fy risky finan­cial deals that were high­ly lucra­tive for Wall Street and ulti­mate­ly cost tax­pay­ers bil­lions of dollars.

These poli­cies have left deep scars, both in the city’s neigh­bor­hoods and in its bank accounts. The next may­or will not be able to wave a mag­ic wand and undo all the dam­age that decades of neolib­er­al rule have wrought. The city and school district’s struc­tur­al bud­get deficits are all too real. Before the next may­or can even start to think about right­ing the wrongs, they will need to find mon­ey under the couch cush­ions just to keep the lights on.

There are only two ways for­ward: more tax­es or more finan­cial shenani­gans. Under the Daley-Emanuel style of gov­er­nance, both of these options would have hit com­mu­ni­ties of col­or. Tax increas­es would have been regres­sive, com­ing in the forms of red light and speed­ing cam­eras that are heav­i­ly con­cen­trat­ed in Black and Lat­inx neigh­bor­hoods. Finan­cial shenani­gans would have been used to jus­ti­fy more cuts to crit­i­cal services.

The next may­or needs to flip the script. They need to aggres­sive­ly raise rev­enue from the wealthy parts of the city in order to repair the dam­age to the South and West Sides. For decades, Black and Brown Chica­go have been forced to shoul­der the costs of Daley and Emanuel’s burn­ing desire to revi­tal­ize White Chica­go. The next may­or will have to tar­get Black and Lat­inx com­mu­ni­ties for invest­ment com­ing from pro­gres­sive rev­enues sources that make rich res­i­dents in White Chica­go and the major cor­po­ra­tions down­town pay their fair share. These wealthy inter­ests have ben­e­fit­ed for near­ly 30 years from poli­cies that have pri­or­i­tized the needs of cor­po­ra­tions over those of poor com­mu­ni­ties of col­or. Chicago’s next may­or needs to make White Chica­go pay repa­ra­tions to Black and Brown Chica­go to start to reverse these inequities and right these wrongs.

Saqib Bhat­ti is the Co-Exec­u­tive Direc­tor of the Action Cen­ter on Race & The Econ­o­my and the Direc­tor of the ReFund Amer­i­ca Project.
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