Valerie Jarrett on (and in) the Promised Land

In his 1991 blockbuster, The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How it Changed America,* Nicholas Lemann tells the story of how and why black Mississippi became black Chicago, the place those fleeing sharecroppers thought would be “the promised land.”

In the book, Lemann features the story of Ruby Daniels Haynes, formerly of Clarksdale, Mississippi, who lived in the Robert Taylor Homes, the South-Side Chicago public housing project named for Valerie Jarrett’s grandfather. In no way, did Chicago turn-out to be the promised land for Ms. Haynes and her family.

Instead, according to Valerie, black Chicago had to wait for the 1983 election of Harold Washington, the first African-American Mayor of Chicago, for the “transformation” it first sought so many years before, when so many took the train to South-Side Chicago from downtown Clarksdale and other Mississippi Delta towns.

Here’s Valerie in last Sunday’s New York Times: “Living through the transformation of the city (Chicago, when Harold Washington was Mayor)–maybe we gained our confidence having lived through those days.”**

But black Chicago isn’t transformed: it still suffers from profound racial segregation, soul-starving poverty, frightening school drop-out and unemployment rates, and the malefactors that it did when when Ruby Haynes moved here over 75 years ago; when Valerie’s grandfather protested Chicago’s racial segregation over 60 years ago; when the first Mayor Daley built the Robert Taylor Homes over 50 years ago; when Harold Washington was elected over 25 years ago; and when, over 15 years ago, our second Mayor Daley began the process of tearing-down “Robert Taylor.”

Today, hundreds of thousands of Chicago’s descendants of those Mississippi sharecroppers suffer from far too many of the same ills their great-great-grandparents suffered-from, back in the Delta: too little education, too few jobs, social isolation, and communities bereft of basic services.

Alas, the almost half-century-old lyrics, “A change is gonna come,” of Clarksdale-born singer, Sam Cooke,*** still have currency.

And, as if we needed any further proof, right now we have yet another “teachable moment.”****

Of course, Valerie is right in a very fundamental way: Harold Washington, Dr. King, (and many others of their generation of African-American leaders), moved mountains to create America’s basic legal infrastructure for racial equality.

An important result is that Valerie, and many others of her African-American-generation, are great successes; they were able to obtain the education, the expertise, and the “confidence” they needed to succeed. But, a city transformed, a “promised land,” if-you-will?

I think, only for some–for the most part, for those with the very greatest intellect, or born to privilege, or with an “Ivy League” education, or with the good fortune to have very good friends in very high places.

To this point, and in this week when Judge Sonia Sotomayor is well-on-her-way to being confirmed as the next Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, take note of these comments by Roger Simon, Chief Political Columnist of Politico, and another native Chicago South-Sider:*****

“No diversity at all with Sotomayor”

“Aside from intelligence and experience, we are told that one of the best things Sonia Sotomayor will bring to the Supreme Court is diversity.

“To which I say: baloney. She brings no diversity at all.

“I offer the following as proof. Here are the justices of the Supreme Court and the law schools they went to: John Roberts, Harvard; John Paul Stevens, Northwestern; Antonin Scalia, Harvard; Anthony Kennedy, Harvard; Clarence Thomas, Yale; Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Columbia; Stephen Breyer, Harvard; Samuel Alito, Yale; David Souter, who just retired, Harvard; [and] Sonia Sotomayor…Yale.

“That’s diversity?

“True, there is one justice not from an Ivy League school. But Northwestern is the only private school in the Big Ten.

“This is not change we can believe in.”******

In 1983, when Harold Washington gave his first mayoral inaugural address, I sat nearby and heard him say:

“Business as usual will not be accepted by the people of this city; business as usual will not be accepted by this chief executive of this great city.”*******

But, tragically, 26 years later that’s just what we still have: business as usual, a city and a country in which far too few reach the promised land, and in which most of the rest don’t even have a shot. Exhibit A: when Skip-Gates-Harvard-Professor is arrested, he goes to the White House for a beer with the President.

What about the millions of other African-American men who have been arrested for disorderly conduct in ambiguous circumstances, or who may been the victims of racial profiling? Where are they having a beer tonight?

They, too, deserve to reach the promised land; they, too, deserve to have a great education and the confidence Valerie spoke-of; they, too, deserve the opportunity to have as friends those who can help them achieve great things; indeed, they, too, deserve to have a beer with the President.

When asked about Skip Gates’ White House visit tonight, Robert Gibbs said: “There’s no formal agenda other than cold beer.” ********

In my view, that’s not good enough for tonight, tomorrow night, or any other night after that. There is just so much to talk about and even more to do.

*Lemann, Nicholas, The Promised Land, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1991.

**The New York Times, Sunday, July 26, 2009,

***Cooke, Sam, “A Change is Gonna Come,” from the album, “Ain’t that Good News,” RCA Victor, 1964

*****At, Simon’s bio says his South Side neighborhood was a place “…where politics was a constant sport.” Harold Washington was fond of quoting yet another South-Sider, Finley Peter Dunne, “Politics ain’t beanbag.” Also at http://www.politics/


******** “A cold one on Obama: Will it cool racial flap?” Chicago Sun-Times, July 29, 2009

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