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There Are No Asian-American Aldermen Here

With Jesse Jackson Jr. and Luis Gutierrez rattling around the outskirts of the next mayoral race, and a city council packed with women, African Americans, and at least one openly gay man, you might think that diversity has found its place in Chicago's political arena. Indeed, African Americans and Hispanics in particular have joined the great parade of minority groups before them who have worked their way up, at least to some degree, from outsider status into the halls of power.

But there is a glaring absence from this picture of diverse representation, a missing piece of the puzzle rarely if ever considered among the political practitioners, the political pundits, and the political press. It is this simple fact: There are no Asian-American aldermen here.

Curious, isn't it? Especially for a growing part of the population which, as a group, is in seemingly good economic shape. Yet, in the case of Chicago's Asian Americans, money doesn't equal power.

Why not?

Let's take a look at the numbers.

See a map showing Chicago's Asian American population
In 1990, Asian Americans in Chicago numbered 103,095--3.7 percent of the city's population. In 2000, the number of Asians Americans in the city jumped to 127,052--or 4.4 percent of the city's population, This 23.2 percent increase in the Asian-American population came in a decade when both whites and African Americans experienced population losses (3.8 percent and 2.5 percent, respectively).

While the growth of the Asian-American population pales in comparison to that of the Latino population's 40.8 percent gain (from 535,315 to 753,835), it still represents an increase that should bring with it additional political power.

And yet, Asian Americans have little political leverage in Chicago.

Why not?

The answer may lie in the lack of geographic density. The highest concentration of Asian Americans in the city is around Chinatown. And indeed, the number of Asian Americans in this area has grown in the last decade. Unfortunately for Asian Americans, this expansion has been a westward one, into the 11th Ward, while the pre-existing concentration of the Asian-American population is in the 25th Ward.

Both of these wards present problems for potential Asian American political power.

The 11th ward, the white power base of the Daley family anchored by Bridgeport and represented by James Balcer, is a non-starter for Asian-American power. In the 25th Ward, Chinatown is but a small slice of a large ward that includes Pilsen, the Hispanic neighborhood that helped elect Danny Solis alderman.

Similar geographic lines cleave the Asian-American population on the North Side, particularly between the 46th and 48th Wards of Uptown and Edgewater, and 39th, 40th, and 50th Wards of West Ridge, Lincoln Square, and North Park. (No ward with a boundary starting north of Belmont Avenue is represented by a minority alderman.)

Do Asian Americans in Chicago really need political representation? Aren't Asian Americans as a group doing quite well?

You might think. According to the 2000 Census, median household income for Asian Americans in the United States ($51,967) was higher than that of non-Hispanic whites ($45,367).

But in Chicago, the story is quite different. Asian Americans in the city actually make less ($40,519 median income) than non-Hispanic whites ($49,222). In fact, Koreans in the city have a median income slightly more than a half ($20,401) of that of Asian Americans as a whole.

This combination of geographic dispersion and surprising economic insecurity has serious consequences when mixed in with a serious lack of political representation.

In 2004, the City of Chicago decided to exclude Asian Americans from its minority set-aside program for building contracts, in response to a reverse-discrimination lawsuit brought by the Builders Association of Greater Chicago.

The builders association argued that minority groups and women no longer needed to be protected from discrimination. The city forged a compromise that dropped Asian Americans from its set-aside program while retaining contracting opportunities for African Americans, Hispanics, and women.

Few political figures stood next to Asian American community leaders as they pled Mayor Richard M. Daley and a task force that had studied the matter to reconsider.

Politicians, and voters to an extent, tend to approach and prioritize social issues by race or ethnicity. This approach can work well in Chicago because the city is severely segregated by race and ethnicity. Local politicians easily win their elections with a support of one group.

Yet, they continually make decisions that impact those that are beyond their respective wards. As society becomes more diverse, voters ought to demand more than racial or ethnic credentials from their local representatives. And politicians ought to consider beyond their own racial/ethnic backgrounds.

But as long as the old ways hold sway in Chicago, the future of Asian-American power here appears grim.

Kiljoong Kim is Research Director with the Egan Urban Center and a lecturer of sociology at DePaul University.


Comments welcome.


Posted on March 13, 2006

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