A Letter to My Cousins

Coming to terms with family history when your family name is “Daley”

“To be black was to confront, and to be forced to alter, a condition forged in history. To be white was to be forced to digest a delusion called white supremacy. Indeed, without confronting the history that has either given white people an identity or divested them of it, it is hardly possible for anyone who thinks of himself as white to know what a black person is talking about at all. Or to know what education is.” 

—James Baldwin, “Dark Days” (1980)

Dear Cousins,                                     

In 1962, James Baldwin wrote in a letter to his nephew, “You know and I know that the country is celebrating one hundred years of freedom one hundred years too early. We cannot be free until they are free.” Baldwin was writing about white people finally freeing ourselves of the lie of white supremacy.  More than half a century later, we are no closer to doing so, even though the recent uprisings in the wake of the police murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Walter Wallace Jr., and too many others, may be the largest in American history, and more white people than ever before have been in the streets protesting racist policing. This nationwide movement has eschewed failed moderate reforms and instead centered transformative demands like defunding and abolishing the police and the entire prison industrial complex (PIC). Abolition of the PIC is a decades-old political practice originally theorized by Black feminist writers such as Angela Davis, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Mariame Kaba, and organizations such as Critical Resistance and Incite! Women of Color Against Violence. Abolition demands the dismantling of our society built on white supremacy and racial capitalism, and the construction of a new society “built on cooperation instead of individualism, on mutual aid instead of self-preservation,” in the words of Kaba

Unfortunately, so far Chicago is one of the only major cities which has not been responsive to the demands of the movement. Mayor Lori Lightfoot is adamantly opposed to defunding the notoriously corrupt, racist, violent, and unreformable Chicago Police Department.  Even though the movement has not secured many policy wins thus far, it is important to acknowledge that several forward-thinking Local School Councils have voted to remove police from their schools, and several progressive City Council members have endorsed defunding the police and proposed essential alternatives like a non-police mental health emergency hotline

In addition, the Movement for Black Lives in Chicago has attempted to keep the pressure up with marches, mass trainings, canvassing, and other inspiring direct actions. Ultimately, it remains to be seen whether the demands of the movement will be met during this administration, but I at least hope that this historical moment pushes more white people to have their own interpersonal reckonings about race, which would make you both less likely to be subject to any personal racist attacks. Those are very unlikely to be eliminated any time soon, but we must try to make that the reality—while also dismantling the broader structures that produce “group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death,” which is Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s definition of racism

In Baldwin’s letter, he wrote, “Please try to remember that what [white people] believe, as well as what they do and cause you to endure, does not testify to your inferiority, but to their inhumanity and fear.” There is still so much of that fear, that belief in white supremacy, throughout the country and even within our own family. I don’t have any memories from when it happened in the early 2000s, but I remember being so mad when I heard years later about how several of our family members were upset with your mom for marrying your dad, a Black man who immigrated to the U.S. from Guyana after meeting and falling in love with your mom when she was living in Guyana as part of the Peace Corps. While it is good that not as many people in the family would be as straightforwardly racist as that today, this is only one part of divorcing oneself from white supremacy. 

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Many people in our family are still committed to white supremacy today, even if they are not racist interpersonally, because they support racist politics and policies like mass criminalization, privatization, and austerity, otherwise known as neoliberal capitalism. This so-called “socially liberal, fiscally conservative” politics is racist because it produces group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death. These policies are responsible for the thirty-year life expectancy gap between white and Black Chicago neighborhoods, and a nine-year racial gap in life expectancy on average. Further, in this city and throughout the country, by all measures the Black/white wealth gap is at the same levels as it was in the 1960’s, and inequality continues to skyrocket as Black people are disproportionately killed and economically harmed by the coronavirus crisis. As Ohio State law professor Amna Akbar concluded in an October 31 essay in the New York Review of Books, “The impacts of Covid-19 are racialized because inequality is: Black, Latino, and Indigenous people are experiencing rates of infection two to three times that of whites and suffering the highest rates of death. These rates of illness and death are caused by segregated and exorbitantly priced housing, profit-driven health care, meager wages for essential work, and thousands of prisons, jails, and detention centers—all of which disproportionately affect Black people and people of color. This is what [abolitionist scholar Ruth Wilson] Gilmore means by a ‘vulnerability to premature death’ sanctioned by the state.’”

This white supremacist status quo has been disrupted by the ongoing mass uprising in response to unrelenting police violence against Black people, in Chicago and throughout the country. At this historic moment, instead of using his power to stand with Black Chicagoans by working to enact the transformative change that our city needs, our parents’ cousin, Patrick D. Thompson—the current alderman of Chicago’s 11th Ward—has been blaming “outside antagonists and criminals” for looting and instead “standing with” police officers “everyday.”

Instead of defending Black lives by using his position on the City Council’s Public Safety Committee to give the community control of the police or otherwise reduce the power and scope of the CPD—and therefore reduce their ability to continue killing and brutalizing Black and brown Chicagoans—he does not support the Civilian Police Accountability Council ordinance, and wants to give even more power and resources to CPD. That is because he, like almost everyone else in our family, idolizes our great-grandfather Richard J. Daley, who was the horribly racist mayor of Chicago from 1955 to 1976. As I recently recalled in the Weekly, in the mid-twentieth century, roughly around the time he was mayor, “Chicago’s Black population grew from about 8.2 percent to 32.7 percent. At the same time, from 1945 to 1970, the city’s police budget grew 900 percent and the CPD doubled the number of cops on the streets.” These police killed, tortured, brutalized, arrested and incarcerated Black Chicagoans without cause and with impunity throughout these years, while the judicial system was as corrupt as City Hall and sent thousands of innocent people to prison. When Black and brown Chicagoans protested police brutality, segregation, and racial inequality, he denied that there was any problem, instead always emphasizing “law and order,” much like the current mayor and both candidates for president in 2020. 

Today, Illinois continues to incarcerate hundreds of thousands of people, a disproportionate number of them Black and from the Chicagoland area. Chicago has been recognized as the false-confession capital of the United States. The 2016 Police Accountability task force report (chaired by then-president of the Chicago Police Board Lori Lightfoot) concluded, “CPD’s own data gives validity to the widely held belief the police have no regard for the sanctity of life when it comes to people of color.” This long, racist history and unrelenting oppression demonstrates that policing and prisons are inherently white supremacist institutions, so they must be defunded in the immediate term and made obsolete in the long term

Many people in the family will disagree with everything that I am writing, and they will probably tell you that our great-grandfather made these choices in a different time, and that this is what the voters demanded. They may also say the same thing for his role in resisting desegregation in public schools or fighting Martin Luther King Jr.’s campaign to desegregate Chicago’s neighborhoods, including the deliberately-segregated public housing projects, but they will most likely just not talk about those things at all. 

The first Mayor Daley was enduringly successful in shaping his city, and his legacy influences Chicago’s politics today. Chicago remains one of the most segregated cities in the country, while public schools, health facilities, and housing have been closed and divested from; at the same time police spending per capita has tripled since 1964. The structures of racial capitalism produce and perpetuate lasting disparities in employment, education, wealth, health, food and housing security, and life expectancy. That is why, as Saidiya Hartman writes, “The possessive investment in whiteness can’t be rectified by learning ‘how to be more antiracist.’ It requires a radical divestment in the project of whiteness and a redistribution of wealth and resources. It requires abolition, the abolition of the carceral world, the abolition of capitalism.”

As horrible as this history and present is, for the most part I have not gotten into too many detailed arguments over this history with the family yet, and I have not directly criticized our great-grandfather very much, because I am very conflict-averse in general. That’s why I debated for a long time whether to try to get this letter published instead of just letting it be a letter that I give you when you are older. But as Baldwin said, “I think it does a disservice to a child to tell [them] things which are not true. Children cannot really be fooled.” 

Even if I have not until now directly called our family out for their racist policymaking amongst other family, I definitely do still speak out about racial injustice in conversations with them, and the most tension arises whenever there are family discussions about the current Black Lives Matter protest movement. In the midst of this historic uprising—when more white people than ever before are realizing their complicity in upholding white supremacy and taking action to demand change—many members of our family are still very pro-police. They are prone to respond to the Black Lives Matter movement with the “all lives” or the even worse and more directly white supremacist, “blue” lives matter refrain. 

It is always astonishing to me that some of our family members can repeat this racist nonsense while also ignoring our great-grandfather’s record, or the fact that as Cook County State’s Attorney our great-uncle, Richard M. Daley, later Mayor of Chicago, was involved in covering up evidence of Chicago police torture, and over one hundred torture survivors remain incarcerated. Well, they must know about this of course, but they still must not have a problem with the status quo enough to want to change it. I have a lot more hope for your generation though, and I hope that by the time you are more politically engaged, you do not have to deal with as much of this conservative selective memory. Ultimately, that is why I am publishing this letter, because I do believe that this needs to be called out, and that we must dismantle the white supremacist policies and institutions enabled by some of our family members, such as the Chicago Police Department. But I do still hope that it doesn’t ruin too many relationships with loved ones, and I hope that you both find it useful one day. 

Above all, as Baldwin wrote to his nephew, “Take no one’s word for anything, including mine, but trust your experience.” When you are finding strength to love and dream about what you believe the future of the world should look like, instead of looking to politicians like our great-uncles and great-grandfather, you should instead listen to your parents, and read people like Guyanese professor and political activist Walter Rodney and Trinidadian-American writer and communist organizer Claudia Jones, and learn from the many organizers in Chicago’s movement for Black liberation. As the American activist, minister, and P.h.D candidate Nyle Fort recently wrote in a letter to his incarcerated nephew, “I’m talking about dismantling a society that thinks it needs police, or prisons, or war, or guns, or borders, or fossil fuels, or private property, or the lie that some of God’s children matter more than others.”  

Love, 

Bobby

✶ ✶ ✶ ✶

Bobby Vanecko is a contributor to the Weekly. He is a law student at Loyola University Chicago. He last wrote about illegal lockouts and evictions for the Weekly.

18 Comments

  1. A very courageous and certainly thought provoking letter. Much of Chicago’s brutal segregation policies began with the very violent race riots of 1919, triggered because a black teenager was swimming in a “white” area of the beach. The riots left 38 dead, dozens injured and many homes destroyed. The writer’s great grandfather, the future Mayor Daley, was 17 at the time, a high school student at the Catholic De La Salle Institute, a few blocks from the epicenter of the riot. He also also a member of the Hamburg Athletic Club, the “Hamburgs,” literally a White vigilante group. The so-called ‘athletic clubs’ were the closest Chicago ever came to having chapters of the KKK. Given his lifetime of racist policies, it would be naive to think that the future Mayor was not a eager participant in the violence. Deacdes later, comfortably ensconced in the family bungalow in Bridgeport, every Black in Chicago knew they had to be out of Bridgeport by sunset or their life was at risk. Martin Luther King, Jr. had been horrified by the racism he witnessed in Chicago, calling it worse than anything he’d ever seen in Mississippi.

    • I hope Bobby isn’t looking for a career in politics because if this is how he trashes his family who in politics would trust him or want to work with him.

  2. Wow, Bobby Vanecko. Thanks for sharing this powerful essay/letter to your family. It’s on target and all of Chicago needs to read it. Understanding history always matters. It looks like you’re going to be bringing the hot sauce to spice up your family’s Thanksgiving gathering!

  3. Thank you for your honesty and bravery. This is educational and ennobling and hopefully helps open the eyes and ears of those who have not seen past their ignorance.

  4. Gratitude for the work that you just do. During the mid-20th century ‘segregation’ was 1 of the 4 features of genetics. When I talked about the situation with one of my paternal cousins who presence was like a human Shrine, he cautioned me that the 4 features of genetics was determined with the ‘sweet pea’. He also cautioned me about being a ‘clanging cymbal’. How I interpret the situation is ‘I am the lightest of the bronze people’ and also ‘tallest of the short ladies’, ‘shortest of the tall ladies’.
    To completely change the subject, Dr. Vanecko, M.D. was the family physician for our Slovak family neighbors during the mid-20th century. Our next doors neighbors were both Bohemian. Via the Wisdom of Almighty God, Bohemia became part of the Czech Republic and Slovakia. From the Srrmon on the mount, the Beatitude ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, they shall be called ‘children of God” really helps.
    As usual, gratitude for the work that you just do. For Your Information, Sacred Scripture is the History of human progression after what Faith people call ‘original sin’ through the End Times which occur with every generation according to Sacred Scripture.

  5. A great letter, Bobby.

    I learned about the racism of your great grandfather when I watched “The Murder of Fred Hampton” as a freshman in 1977. I decided to move to Chicago to be part of the movement that elected Harold Washington in 1986. The judgement of the first Mayor Daley was expressed most clearly by Harold in the televised debates with Jane Byrne and Richard M. Daley in 1983, when asked to remember Richard J. Daley by Walter Jacobson, Harold said this:

    “When he says that he would hope that I would have all the good qualities of past mayors, there are no good qualities of past mayors to be had. None. None. None. None.” “I did not mourn at the bier of the late mayor. I regret anyone dying. I have no regrets about him leaving. He was a racist from the core, head to toe and hip to hip. There’s no danger of doubt about it. And he spewed and fawned and oppressed Black people to the point that some of them thought that was the way they were supposed to live, just like some slaves on the plantation thought that was the way they were supposed to live.”

    I’m now part of the Chicago Alliance Against Racist & Political repression, campaigning for CPAC. I hope to see you in the streets!

  6. Would love to get the contact information for Bobby Vanecko, as I used to work in the Daley Administration, now living here in California.

  7. I’m 79 y/o have been in Chicago since I was 19y/o (60yrs) Lived through both the Daley’s Administrations, as well as The Harold Washington Era. I became compliant during the Richard J Era, but became political astute during the Harold Washington Era. Harold was the first to teach the Black Community that politicians work for you and should be held accountable to you. Under Richard D. Era Jon Burge rose to power at the expense of our young black boys forced into false confessions. He was our State’s Attorney, adding insult to injury, later becoming our mayor, robbing
    Chicago of one of its’ greatest resources (parking) as well as causing the taxpayers to pay for the victims of Jon Burges….Thanks Bobby ; President Obama said your generation gives him hope…ME TOO

  8. This is a good starting point for some history of Irish and Black troubles in this country. There is little evidence that new immigrants arrived in the US during the 1840s or 1850s with deep-seated hatred of African Americans. The newcomers were taught to value their white skins over all other personal characteristics, for in America, skin color was the single most decisive human characteristic. More importance than religion, political opinion, and even gender. Skin color marked off the free from the slave. Immigrants arriving in the 1850s landed in an America where both major political parties, the Whigs and the Democrats, were dominated by leaders who openly proclaimed the innate superiority of the white man above all others, and who defended the legality, and even the sanctity, of slavery. As far as the police are concerned trace their history back to Reconstruction, when Boston officials voted to hire freed slaves as town constables. The Irish community rioted because they wanted the jobs. The white superiority / race infatuation dysfunction was created and has been supported by other supremacist for hundreds of years

  9. Bobby,

    You should give your inheritance to black children, your mansion that you grew up in majority white Sauganash should be given to a black family, and your law school tuition should go to free POC from jail.

    Revoke your white card boy! Put your money where your mouth is!!!

    JJ

  10. Bobby, I actually worked in the Richard M. Daley Administration, and I am very well aware of and support the allegations made by you. Would love to communicate with you to share that information. I actually have pictures of the Mayor taken with him at City Hall that I think you will find noteworthy. Please contact me at contractsagency@gmail.com or provide me with your contact information.

  11. Glad I read this today. It offers me a bit of insight into thinking of at least one white person making an effort to understand and possibly address racism and white supremacist behavior in Chicago. This is heartwarming and a hopeful note during this Thanksgiving season. This subject is not likely to replace other important discussion topics at our socially distant holiday gatherings, but anyone reading this may be encouraged to share the letter. Then there will be at least two.

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