Ballots and Race: Chicago Voting Participation (Harold M. Baron, 1964)

Synopsis by Donald Planey

Ballots and Race explores the areal differentiation in Black voter participation between Chicago neighborhoods, Chicago and other northern industrial cities, and northern cities versus Southern cities. According to the Chicago Urban League, Chicago could boast of higher voter participation rates than Southern states, but still suffered from disproportionate Black voter discouragement. While Black voter participation varied by ward according to the income and education characteristics of different subsections of Chicago’s internal Black metropolis, voter discouragement was visible in lower overall Black voting rates compared to white Chicagoans, especially in wards that were locked-down by the Black submachine of the Chicago political machine.

Negroes in Policy-Making Positions in Chicago: “A Study in Black Powerlessness in Chicago” (Harold M. Baron, 1968)

(Synopsis by Donald Planey)

In this Chicago Urban League Study, Dr. Baron direct a CUL research team-headed by himself, and consisting of research assistants Harriet Stulman, Richard Rothstein, and Rennard Davis-in studying the attainment of decision-making positions within the Chicago Metropolitan Area’s major institutions. Examining corporations, law firms, unions, public school systems, local government, religious organizations, universities, and the Democratic Party, this empirical study draws from 1965 Census data, interviews by research assistants, and publicly-available information about various institutions’ rosters.

Here, Baron and his team examined a relatively straightforward empirical question: Which types of organizations in the Chicago metropolitan area tended to exclude Black people from decision-making posts, whether top-or mid-tier, and to what degree? The study finds that Black Chicagolanders are widely shut out of decision-making positions, but that there is a great deal of variegation in how different segments of the region’s institutions practice exclusion (or in rare cases, inclusion). The Democratic Party, CIO unions, and religious organizations are more likely to accept “above-token” Black leadership, while different segments of public, private, and civil society either entirely exclude Black people, or alternatively, accept “token” amounts of Black members into mid-tier leadership positions.

Towards the end of the article, Baron analyses the data, delineating the challenges of attaining “Black power” in the Chicago region. In turn, he implores the reader to consider the challenges of defining the purpose of attaining Black social, economic, and political power, especially within the confines of a class-stratified social order.

The Menace of American Fascism (Harold M. Baron, 1969)

Synopsis by Donald Planey

In the unpublished manuscript “The Menace of American Fascism,” Baron explores the possible historical conditions under which the United States could potential undergo a turn towards fascist politics.  Using and clarifying his approach to radical institutionalism, Baron conceptualizes the U.S. social fabric as a set of class and race formations set against the backdrop of the moving terrain of the post-war labor market.  To explore the future dangers of a reactionary turn in American politics, Baron examines the politics and social base of the 1968 George Wallace campaign, as well as the reasons for Nixon’s ultimate victory over Hubert Humphrey.  Instead of the dominant contemporary approach to radical institutionalism represented by C. Wright Mills, which was dedicated to uncovering the “power elites” within the U.S. business-state nexus, Baron’s institutionalism was dedicated to studying the ways in which different class-race formations attempted to secure their social standing amid an unraveling post-war social contract. 

In Baron’s analysis, post-war growth in inequality is concomitant with an increasing sense of distance from the U.S. political system among Americans.  Due to racial divides within the United States, this alienation has manifested in different ways between the white and Black working classes.  While the Black working class was at the height of its support for civil rights and Black liberation, the white working class was torn between economic populism and white supremacy.  While Baron notes that Wallace’s politics resemble the original European fascist movements in key ways, he views the U.S. bourgeoisie as equally complicit in opening up possibilities for fascist reaction against Black liberations and growing white impoverishment.   

Fascism, in Baron’s understanding, is enabled by structural and institutional conditions at specific junctures in a nation’s economic development, not just the presence of fascist ideology among certain individuals.  The U.S.’s founding mythology valorizes the white yeoman entrepreneur and worker.  However, white conservatism’s free market convictions (embodied by Barry Goldwater) also inhibited the formation of an effective social base for an American fascist movement, by throwing cold water on the desire of more Wallace-type conservatives to construct a supportive welfare state for white Americans.  However, these did not simply reflect different factions of white conservatism.  White Wallace-style populists still viewed themselves as committed to a free market.  But if mainstream elites were to begin valuing “security” over freedom, and white populists were able to square the circle of white-only egalitarianism, a space could open up for a genuine American fascism within the U.S. civil society. 

Report from Chicago: Politics Transformed: Harold Washington Goes to City Hall (Harold M. Baron, 1985)

Synopsis by Donald Planey

Politics Transformed is the empirical counterpart to Baron’s Racism Transformed. Drawn from his own experience in the Washington mayoralty as well as early journalism about the Harold Washington campaign, Baron uses the Chicago context to explore how the Washington movement and mayoralty asserted Black political power while grappling with the profound rightward-turn in U.S. politics. Baron characteristically lays out the political history of Black Chicago, from the New Deal through Black Power era, leading up to Washington’s campaign. He compliments the Chicago context with a history of national-scale Black politics, and its struggles against the rise of Reaganism.

The next part of the essay details the process by which Harold Washington stitched together a constituency and progressive political apparatus, as well as the means by which different factions of opposition-the old white machine guard, business interests, and bureaucrats-reacted to the campaign and mayoralty. Baron concludes with an analysis of the institutional bottlenecks encountered by the Washington mayoralty, and how they represent teachable lessons for grassroots organizing under “advanced” capitalism and racial stratification.

The Poker Club (vignette)

Throughout his life, Dr. Baron maintained a complicated relationship with academia.  He wanted his writings to be scholarly and he appreciated the pedagogical and investigative aspects of academic life.  However, he always insisted that his “project” was not ultimately academic (Interview with Lou Turner). He always sought for his work, whether in research, fundraising, networking or policymaking, to be directly relevant to on-the-ground anti-racist, progressive, and community development projects.  Among Chicago civil rights veterans, he was not alone in shirking the limitations of the Ivy Tower in this regard. 

After his time as research director of the Chicago Urban League, Dr. Baron initiated a loose affiliation with Northwestern University’s Center for Urban Affairs (CUA) and took on a teaching position at Associated College of the Midwest (ACM), circa 1971.  Both the ACM and the CUA were populated with Chicago civil rights veterans (John McKnight interview), and many of them shared Dr. Baron’s “one foot in, one foot out” stance towards the academic world (Interview with Dan Lewis). Associated Colleges of the Midwest was founded by a consortium of Chicago-area colleges looking for a way to keep the new generation of rebellious students- the generation that had shut down campuses across the United States in protest of the Vietnam War- from dropping out of the college system.  In order to shepherd these students, the ACM drew from Chicago’s already-existing tradition of academic-activist troublemakers, with the city’s network of religious progressives serving as a model.  One of ACM’s early associates, John McKnight, was frequently brought in to speak to students, his authority entirely deriving from his career as an activist, not any academic credentials (Interview with John McKnight).  Having both composed an important dissertation in the field of economic history and served as the key researcher for Chicago’s civil rights movement, Baron shared a rebellious, yet practical approach to urban politics with his ACM colleagues.

Out of the post-Civil Rights era of Chicago and the ACM urban studies program sprang the “Poker Club,” an informal, yet important periodic gathering of many of Chicago’s anti-poverty activists.  After beginning in the early 1970s, the Poker Club would continue for decades as an important institution within the city’s progressive community. The Poker Club facilitated information exchange, social networking, and the strengthening of solidarity between community organizers, who otherwise tended to clash with mainstream academic and political institutions (Interview with John McKnight).  First-generation Poker Club regulars were Stanley Hallett, John Fish, John McKnight, and of course, Hal Baron himself.

From the 1970s onwards, the Poker Club would regularly meet to play cards, but camping trips and hikes were also common activities.  While the Poker Club was frequently host to debates about policy and politics, the ultimate point was conviviality. While the members came from a wide variety of walks of life- Academics, lawyers, labor leaders, and politicians would drop by- the unifying commitment across the Poker Club was community organizing in Chicago’s impoverished neighborhoods.  Of all the attendees, Hal Baron took Poker the most seriously. While there was always a core group of attendees, people would bring family and friends to poker games, serving to expand attendees’ networks (Interview with Dan Lewis).  

The Poker Club would continue into later generations, with Jody Kretzmann and Dan Lewis being two important second-generation members.  For Hal Baron’s work, the Poker Club was important for spreading the word about EcoViva’s mission in El Salvador among the stateside progressive community.  As two separate Poker Club members attested, Baron took any opportunity he could to “brief” his fellow activists on EcoViva’s work (Interviews with John McKnight and Dan Lewis).  Dr. Baron also recognized that the Poker Club network was a source for expertise on the dynamics of poverty, and the challenges for poverty remediation in urban America. In developing his overarching theorization of civil society, he drew from insights developed by Chicago’s anti-poverty activists about welfare bureaucracy and the urban poor.  When Dr. Baron was brought into the Harold Washington mayoral administration, it came as something of a surprise to the Poker Club.  They were used to operating outside the halls of urban political power, and now one of their own was on the inside (Interviews with Dan Lewis and John McKnight).  However, this was a major aspect of Dr. Baron’s role within the Washington mayoralty, where he could work to ensure that neighborhood groups and anti-poverty advocates could petition the Washington mayoralty for support (Interview with John McKnight).

One of the benefits of the Poker Club was that it could serve as a space for lively discussions about grassroots political strategy.  Dan Lewis recalls one such dialog with Hal Baron in the mid-1990s, following the 1995 publication of Dan Lewis and Kathryn Nakagawa’s Race and Educational Reform in the American Metropolis, a monograph about urban school decentralization in U.S. cities.  The authors’ core argument was that school governance decentralization had the potential to meaningfully reform urban education systems to egalitarian ends, but that actually-existing decentralization programs were often created by institutionalized political elites, and rarely included the necessary resources to facilitate true local control.  In their perspective, the Local School Councils (LSCs) that had arisen midway through Washington’s mayoralty represented a potential avenue for progressive school reform. Hal Baron objected to Lewis and Nakagawa’s specific strategic prescriptions, arguing to Dr. Lewis that school reform in Chicago was, by necessity, predicated on progressives’ capture of key centers of urban power.  Both individuals agreed that “top-down” and “bottom-up” approaches were necessary components of a political strategy for education reform. Their exchange was about the precise strategic approach to take. The baseline values shared between members of the Poker Club enabled this and similar discussions: Its members were dedicated to the project of securing resources and local political control on behalf of the urban poor, but its members often discussed and debated the strategy by which to attain this outcome, discussions that were predicated on their shared values.

The Poker Club also served as a temperature check for Hal Baron.  Throughout the 1990s, Dr. Baron paid close attention to the changes in liberal political culture that were playing out under the Clinton Administration.  Referencing his “liberal friends,” Dr. Baron complained in written letters that liberals were forgetting to place local contexts within a broader political economy  when developing policy ideas. Other members of the Poker Club recognized that Dr. Baron probably came from a more Marxist perspective than they did (Interviews with John McKnight and Dan Lewis).  

However, the Poker Club reflected Dr. Baron’s fundamental values regarding the importance of what he often referred to as “mutuality:” The ability to co-construct community institutions, and to be able to rely on others in times of need.

Special thanks to John McKnight and Dan Lewis, lifetime friends of Hal Baron, for speaking with the Hal Baron Project about the Poker Club.