First Black House speaker in Illinois represents a suburban district

The American suburbs are more diverse than ever. This was illustrated when Representative Emanuel “Chris” Welch was elected yesterday as the Speaker of the Illinois House of Representatives:

Welch, an eight-year lawmaker from west suburban Hillside, ultimately won 70 votes in the 118-member Democratic-controlled House, 10 more than he needed for victory. The vote came after months of debate over whether Madigan and the baggage of bribery scandal that has circled him for months had become too heavy a burden for a diverse caucus to endure.

Every news report on this I have seen notes that Welch is the first Black speaker. It is also worth noting that Welch is from Hillside, a small community roughly fifteen miles due west of Chicago’s Loop at the western edge of Cook County. Home to an early shopping mall in the Chicago suburbs as well as several cemeteries, postwar suburban growth consisted primarily of white residents. In 1960, Hillside was 99.8% white and in 1990 it was 86.3% white. The suburb is now diverse: 41.5% Black, 36.5% Latino, and 21.3% white. His district also covers a number of other diverse suburbs such as Maywood and Bellwood.

This connects with broader trends in the American suburbs. More Blacks have moved to suburbs in recent decades. In a number of suburbs with increasing Black populations, whites have moved out, echoing white flight patterns in large cities. This affects the experiences in and character of communities as well as political patterns.

With notable events like this, the image of suburbs may slowly change. There is still not an evenness of groups across suburbs – could Illinois residents imagine a Black House Speaker from DuPage County or McHenry County? – but the suburbs of Chicago and many other big cities are not exactly as white as they once were.

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