Laura Washington: Black voters sympathize with migrants, but listen up, Democrats

The buses roll in. The crisis is blowing up. Last week, 27 buses carrying migrants arrived in Chicago over five days, the Tribune reported. More than 15,000 migrants have been sent to Chicago from the nation’s southern border states, “with the city running out of room to house them — as thousands sleep on police station floors and at airports awaiting shelter placement.”

Mayor Brandon Johnson is under fire for his plan to erect winterized tent cities to house them. He staunchly defends Chicago’s sanctuary city status, but the city’s efforts to live up to that name are flailing.

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Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and other Republicans are dispatching those fleeing Venezuela, Mexico and other Latin American countries to Democrat-led cities at a furious pace. They aim to, at best, embarrass the Democrats and, at worst, wreak havoc in those urban centers.

As their communities deal with a tsunami of new arrivals, voters in those cities are increasingly pointing fingers at Democrats such as Johnson and New York City Mayor Eric Adams. Among Black voters, the Democrats’ most reliable base, that anger could put their party in deep peril.

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So went my conversation with Perri Small and her listeners on the popular morning show on WVON-AM 1690, Chicago’s Black talk radio. She invited me on last week to chat about the latest in politics. When we hit the migrant issue, the phone lines started sizzling.

“I’m going to tell you, this is a make-or-break issue for WVON listeners and their support of Democratic candidates,” Small declared.

“And I’m going to tell you, WVON (listeners), they’re not playing. I mean, they’re willing to throw the Democrats under the bus for this one issue.”

WVON’s loyal demographic is predominantly African Americans, and more than 60% are 40 or older. Most hold a college degree, and 55% are female, according to data on the station’s website.

Those are people who vote — most often, Democratic.

“They don’t understand how Black people who built this country, how there has never been (the) money that there is (for others),” Small said of her listeners. “They’re upset because they have all of these vacant schools from the school closings, that there’s so much vacant land on the South and West Side.”

Early this year, all hell broke loose when then-Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced plans to move hundreds of migrants into the shuttered Wadsworth Elementary School in Woodlawn. The city went ahead with it, and Wadsworth may remain a shelter for up to two years to house noncitizens coming from thousands of miles away.

Schools are a searingly sore point for Black Chicagoans, who will never forget or forgive then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel for closing 49 public elementary schools in 2013, most in their communities. Many of those school buildings remain, vacant and crumbling.

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I asked Small: What do your listeners want?

She opened up the phone lines. I got an earful.

“I feel put upon by the illegal migrant situation and the Democrat Party,” said Ron, the first caller. “And to answer Laura’s question, what do we want? We want respect, equal respect, and we want returns for our investment (in the Democratic Party).”

“We want jobs, good living conditions. And you know what? The Democrat Party is not giving us anything for our vote,” he also said.

Another caller, Maurice, noted that “these border states have been dealing with this issue for years. So, yes, it’s a political fight, but it is somewhat disingenuous to just say, ‘Oh, well, they’re just doing this for politics.’ If we get enough immigrants here, we’re going to start trying to find a place to ship them.”

Maurice, who said he has worked as a property manager, points to Chicago’s affordable housing shortage. “And this is going to make it worse. And then to try to act like it won’t affect the people who are already at the bottom of the barrel is disingenuous also.”

It is an age-old complaint. When the politicians come shilling for votes, they always remind us that we are the Democratic Party’s most loyal constituency and they need us. Yet, our communities are in shambles, and there is never enough money for our schools, buses, city services and parks. We are asked to step aside for one more crisis, for one more group or issue that must be tended to first.

This time, it’s the migrants.

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Small’s listeners and the African Americans I hear from are sympathetic to the migrants’ plight.

Most of us have never been to Venezuela, but we have seen the many women, men and children sleeping on the floors of police stations across the city, for weeks and months. We understand that no one does that unless they are escaping horrific and unendurable conditions back home.

But it’s not about them, Black folks will tell you. What about us?

If Democratic Party leaders do not answer that question, come election time, defending their sanctuary cities will be the least of their problems.

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Laura Washington is a political commentator and longtime Chicago journalist. Her columns appear in the Tribune each Monday. Write to her at LauraLauraWashington@gmail.com.

Submit a letter, of no more than 400 words, to the editor here or email letters@chicagotribune.com.

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