Ethnic Politics and the 50th Ward

Let’s start with a simple truth:

West Ridge is not Little India, and Little India is not West Ridge. Little India is in West Ridge and is part of West Ridge, but the larger community is not and cannot be part of Little India.

Stand back. Did the sky fall?  No?  Let’s continue.

A few years ago the owner of the Russian bookstore on Devon (now closed) told a reporter that the 50th Ward is not a multicultural community but merely a neighborhood where different ethnic groups live side by side without any real interaction. He was right then, and it’s even worse now.

The current alderman babbles incessantly about our ward’s multiculturalism but she has done absolutely nothing to unite our various cultures into one community. Why should she? Ignoring ethnic rivalries and resentments works to her advantage. Playing one group off against another ensures that she will remain alderman. The current aldermanic race, which pits her against two Indo-American candidates, is a case in point.

Zehra Quadri has lived in the community for decades, founded a community service organization to serve ward residents, and worked closely with former alderman Bernie Stone to deliver services to ward residents struggling through the crushing economic recession that began in 2006. She posed a political threat to the Silversteins, and once Debra was elected Quadri’s city and state funding was cut off; she kept her organization running through private donations. She wasn’t able to do as much as before, which suited the Silversteins just fine.

Shajan Kuriakose moved into the ward less than a year ago, invited to run for alderman by Indo-American business interests who don’t live in the ward but who assured him that they could deliver the Indo-American vote and (1) make him alderman outright; or  (2) give the election to Silverstein; or (3) force a run-off in which either he or Silverstein would win. No matter the outcome, the Indo-American business interests would get what they want: political and economic control of the 50th Ward.

These business interests are so desperate for power that they pander to the anti-female prejudice within Indian culture by pitting an Indian man against an Indian woman, knowing full well that most Indian voters would choose the man. They also know full well that Kuriakose does not really live in the 50th Ward, and the matter of his true residency is now an issue before the Illinois courts.

In the decades since selfish politicians and their marketing teams began to tailor and target political messages by ethnicity, race, and class,  Americans have become less united as Americans and more willing to identify by ethnicity, race, and class. It’s one thing to have pride in your heritage. It’s another to  turn that pride into the kind of selfishly destructive politics that is so evident in West Ridge in this aldermanic campaign.

There is no dominant ethnic group in our community. Indo-Americans are the single largest group, at about 23% of the neighborhood, with Latinos a close second at about 21%. Our Latino community includes Mexicans, Guatemalans, Cubans, Puerto Ricans, and South and Central Americans, but their presence is not reflected in our shopping districts.  More than 75% of the ward is not Indo-American, yet it is only the welfare of the  Indo-American community that concerns our politicians.

The 50th Ward is home to residents from many countries in the Middle East, including Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt, and Syria, and many small groceries, bakeries, and beauty shops along Devon Avenue are owned by them, most located west of California. Many of them are struggling because there simply isn’t enough business to support so many small stores and because they do not figure into the marketing plans of the West Ridge Chamber of Commerce, which is dominated and controlled by Indo-American business interests. The Chamber insists on marketing West Ridge as Little India, with all other businesses fitting into the afterthought of “multicultural shopping.”

Kuriakose stated in his first, unguarded interview with DNA Chicago that he intended to “uplift” the Indian community and expand its businesses and political influence. He’s chosen a traditional path to power, becoming active in the Indo-American Democratic Organization, making his talents and ambition known, and getting the organization’s unqualified support for alderman simply because he’s an Indo-American man who will do what they tell him, i.e., benefit the Indian population of West Ridge at the expense of all other groups. This is the way the Indian business interests run Devon Avenue, and this is what they will do with the rest of the ward should he be elected. [Read the DNA interview here]

The result of this selfish ethnocentric marketing is evident on Devon. Block after block is filled with a mix of vacancies and a variety of shabby little stores that sell anything and everything to make a dollar. The stores on Devon are the kinds of stores found at the crossroads of dusty little villages: Sari shops that also sell pots and pans, lottery tickets, and phone cards. Groceries selling saris and cell phones. Electronics stores that sell luggage and lottery tickets. Cell phone stores that also sell pots and pans.  Every block is home to convenience stores and discount stores.

Having destroyed one of the finest shopping districts in the City of Chicago, the Indo-American business interests now want their own alderman so they can expand their influence all over the ward. That they have transformed Devon into a dump is not discussed. That Indo-American business interests refuse to serve the larger community, relying instead on tourists and Indian shoppers from neighboring states, is not discussed either. The truth—that the street began its decline when the Indian businesses began to dominate Devon and shut out the larger community—is dismissed as racist and anti-Indian. But it isn’t.

The 50th Ward faces an election in which one minority group is determined to gain political power over and dominate all other groups in the ward. We must reject this group’s candidate in favor of a candidate who will represent the entire community. Selfish ethnocentricity is destroying our sense of community and the viability of our major business district. This election is an opportunity for 50th Ward voters to reject ethnocentric politics and to support inclusiveness and community over narrow self-interest..

Kuriakose uses “Many communities, one 50th Ward” as a campaign slogan. Like everything else he says, it’s only partly true.  We are many ethnicities. We are not one community.

If we re-elect our do-nothing alderman, or elect a political opportunist hand-picked by Indo-American business interests, we will remain that way.

[See also Little Tyber, Part I [here] and Part II [here] on this blog.]

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