Can Rahm Emanuel Win Black Voters Back?

Critics say the embattled Chicago mayor needs to address education and violence to regain support.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel at a prayer service for mass park shooting, Sept. 20, 2013 (Scoot Olsen/Getty Images)
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel at a prayer service for mass park shooting, Sept. 20, 2013 (Scoot Olsen/Getty Images)

(The Root) — Why does Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel appear to be furiously campaigning for re-election in the African-American community when the election isn’t until 2015?

On Tuesday he was spotted cruising the aisles of a Wal-Mart on Chicago’s South Side, which is predominantly African American. Over the weekend, he and police Superintendent Garry F. McCarthy rode along with police officers in two of the city’s most violent districts on the South Side in the aftermath of the shooting of 13 people at a park, which grabbed national headlines.

Before that, he announced plans to open a Whole Foods store in Englewood, one of the city’s deadliest neighborhoods, which is also known for its lack of resources. In addition, he apologized for the torture of black suspects by Jon Burge, an infamous former police commander.

Emanuel also recently announced the renaming of an avenue in honor of Bishop Arthur M. Brazier, a popular African-American pastor and community leader who led the Apostolic Church of God in Woodlawn for almost 50 years.

While African Americans overwhelmingly supported President Barack Obama’s former White House chief of staff during his first election, a Chicago Tribune poll in May found that midway through Emanuel’s term, nearly half of black voters disapproved of his job performance, an increase from about 30 percent a year earlier.

Some critics, like Stephanie Gadlin of the Chicago Teachers Union, say that Emanuel lost a lot of support after a record 50 school closings in June. The city said it could no longer afford to keep the schools open because they were low-performing and underutilized.

Many of the schools were located in predominantly African-American communities and bore the names of black icons like Benjamin Banneker, the self-educated astronomer; gospel singer Mahalia Jackson; and Daniel Hale Williams, the general surgeon.

“We don’t have many institutions, but we take great pride in our schools,” Gadlin, communications director at the teachers union, told The Root. “Now here comes Mr. Mayor shutting them down, and people are angry. The good news is that he has a black page in his 2015 campaign manual.”

What does that mean? According to Gadlin and several others, including Illinois state Rep. Monique D. Davis (D-Chicago), he has to do more than spend more time in the black community. He has to reinvest in the community.

“I would say the mayor has an image problem in the black community when he’s building new schools on the North Side, which is predominantly white, and just patting the head of a black child on the South Side, which is predominantly black,” Davis told The Root. “I would suggest that he acquire a black person on his team who is not a yes person. He closed a lot of schools, and there is a lot of black support for public education. But blacks in Chicago seem to be getting the short end of the stick when it comes to education.”

Diane Latiker, executive director of Kids Off the Block, a nonprofit community organization, told The Root that a lack of educational resources and violence go hand in hand. Her youth organization is based in the South Side’s Roseland neighborhood, another of the city’s deadliest communities.