Home > Arts/Culture/Entertainment > The Vallas surge

Back in our country’s less enlightened days that have, of course, long since passed (ha, ha, ha), there was a concept in boxing called the “great white hope.”

That was a white boxer (any white boxer) who was viewed as the defender of the race’s wounded pride and honor when he fought a Black boxer (any Black boxer) who had the temerity to upset the natural order of things by winning the title.

The original Great White Hope was James Jeffries, who boxed Jack Johnson for the heavyweight title in 1915.

White America’s inflamed desperation to see Jeffries put Johnson in his place was the subject of a play and a movie appropriately called The Great White Hope.

Jack London, the novelist, called Jeffries “the chosen representative of the white race, and this time the greatest of them.”

And the New York Times editorialized at the time, “If the black man wins, thousands and thousands of his ignorant brothers will misinterpret his victory as justifying claims to much more than mere physical equality with their white neighbors.” 

Unfortunately for that unknown Times editorial writer, Johnson beat Jeffries in the 15th round. 

Obviously, I was not around to witness the Johnson–Jeffries bout. But I remember the eagerness of white people to watch Jerry Quarry, the last Great White Hope, knock Muhammad Ali on his ass in their 1970 fight.

That didn’t happen either. Ali won by TKO after the third round.

Muhammad Ali vs Jerry Quarry 1 full fight
Ali and Quarry fought for the first time in October 1970 in Atlanta’s City Auditorium. It was Ali’s first official competition after being suspended of his license by the New York State Athletic Commission in 1967, shortly after he was arrested for refusing induction into the U.S. military.

In Chicago, the great white hope concept has carried into politics. Especially in 1983, after Black voters had the temerity to elect Harold Washington as mayor.

Over the next few years, several white politicians—Jane Byrne, Eddie Vrdolyak, and Thomas Hynes—vied for the honor of doing to Washington what Quarry couldn’t do to Ali.

Sorry. Didn’t happen either, as Washington won reelection in 1987.

It was only after Washington had died that Richard M. Daley took the title, so to speak, by first defeating Eugene Sawyer and then Timothy Evans in separate elections to fill out the late mayor’s term in 1989. White Chicago rejoiced and kept voting for Daley, election after election, until he got tired of being mayor and stopped running.

When Lori Lightfoot won, I thought those twisted days had passed. But with the recent surge of Paul Vallas in the polls, I realize I was naive. And I wonder—has Paul Vallas become the Jerry Quarry of Chicago politics?

Has he become, you know, Chicago’s great white hope?

Vallas has certainly won Chicago’s MAGA vote—as well he should. He’s been courting it for the last few years, showing up at an Awake Illinois fundraiser, hanging out with John Catanzara, the controversial Trump-loving president of the Fraternal Order of Police, and appearing on the Jeanne Ives podcast.

Ives is the far-right, anti-abortion zealot who ran against former Governor Bruce Rauner in the 2018 Republican primary because he, Rauner, wasn’t conservative enough. And there was Vallas on her show, sounding like Ron DeSantis, going on and on about masked mandates, evil teachers unions, wokeness, etc. 

Vallas has a MAGA-style hatred for the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU). His voucher proposal to use millions in TIF dollars to subsidize private, non-union schools has the potential to do what even Rauner couldn’t accomplish—destroy CTU and public education in Chicago.

I always figured the MAGA vote alone could get Vallas to the mayoral runoff, as it’s roughly 15 percent of Chicago’s electorate. That’s more or less what Rauner, Donald Trump, and gubernatorial candidate Darren Bailey won in this city.

But according to the latest polls, Vallas has at least 25 percent of the vote, thanks to a strong showing on the north side. Several north-side alderpeople (Tom Tunney, Brian Hopkins, and Brendan Reilly) have endorsed him. Like they’re trying to catch up with their base.

I suspect part of the reason for Vallas’s surge is voters have started to pay attention to the election long enough to realize he’s the only white guy running. Far different from 2019 when he was one of six white candidates, including Daley’s brother. It’s as though a collective light has gone on in the minds of white voters as they realize, “Oh, my goodness, we can take back City Hall!

Now, I realize many white Vallas voters would vehemently deny race has anything to do with how they will vote.

In my experience, white people generally deny race has anything to do with anything they do. If I even suggest the possibility, I generally get one of the following responses:

How dare you!

I’m color blind!

I voted for Obama!

And, of course, the perennial . . . 

Go live in Detroit!

I’m sure many of Vallas’s white supporters support him because they truly believe he’s the most qualified to run this city.

Of course, there’s always the possibility that they truly believe he’s the most qualified to run this city precisely because he’s white.

I call it the Monroe Anderson theory of why white Chicagoans often vote for white politicians and against Black ones. Anderson, a longtime Chicago journalist, refers to the “weaponization of whiteness—as they use skin color against us and for them.” 

If you want to hear Monroe expound on his thoughts, check out our conversation from my February 8 podcast.

All in all, this campaign is starting to remind me of the run-up to the aforementioned special elections of 1989, when so many white people were positively giddy about a Richard M. Daley victory.

Am I unfair? I know some of you will think so. But whenever I start to believe that Chicago really has moved to a new phase of tolerance, I remind myself that this is the city where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called for racial integration. And some white guys hit him in the head with a rock.

Sorry, Chicago. But given your history, it’s always a little tough for me to give you the benefit of the doubt.

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