Lori Lightfoot and the Limits of Representation
Lori Lightfoot’s Chicago makes a staunch commitment to the values of her predecessor: the destruction of Black and Brown communities and the hoarding of wealth for Chicago’s 1%.
By Gloria Oladipo
I wish I were happier about the historic moment of Chicago’s mayoral race and election. I wish I could celebrate instead of being so contrarian. But for me and other Chicago activists, the power of representation is limited; racial and queer aesthetics can only go so far.
Last week, Chicago elected its first ever Black Lesbian mayor, Lori Lightfoot, as a successor to Chicago’s current mayor Rahm Emanuel. Emanuel’s departure as mayor is welcomed by many Chicagoans as his actions during his term drastically underdeveloped Chicago’s most vulnerable neighborhoods. During his time as mayor, Emanuel closed six of Chicago’s 12 mental health clinics (mostly located in the South and West side communities), closed nearly 50 schools (also mostly in South and West side neighborhoods), attempted to cover-up the murder of Laquan McDonald and refused measures to hold the Chicago Police Department accountable, among many other things.
To many, because of the new identities Lightfoot brings to Chicago’s political machine, she is a sign of much needed change. However, Lori Lightfoot’s Chicago is not a progressive Chicago. Lori Lightfoot’s Chicago is not pro-Black. It is not pro-working class or pro-education. Lori Lightfoot’s Chicago is one where closed Black and Brown schools are turned into police academies, where gentrification that ravages low-income communities of color is protected in favor of rent-control, and where murders that kill unarmed Black people such Rekia Boyd are defended and allowed to keep their jobs. Lori Lightfoot’s Chicago makes a staunch commitment to the values of her predecessor: the destruction of Black and Brown communities and the hoarding of wealth for Chicago’s 1%.
I can’t be excited about our first Black lesbian mayor, not when her identities are being trumpeted to disguise problematic policies. Nothing about Lightfoot’s Blackness or queerness changes what she has done and will do to Chicago. Her background says nothing about the policies that she will enact, namely ones that will spell dire consequences for queer and Black communities. And yet, how many excited announcements about this historic moment in Chicago actually highlight anything about her track record or policy goals? How many news articles noted how “historic” her win was (even though her mayoralship will be advancing the same policies as before)? How much of the Lori Lightfoot coverage grouped her win in a trend of other “progressive” women of color making political gains or hailed her as a political outsider?
When we celebrate representation, we rarely ask who it is for. Oftentimes, representation is used to normalize oppressive systems by masking them as progressive. It is used to assuage the guilt of those who don’t actually have a problem with the distribution of wealth or power; they paint the same structures as “progressive” to help it go down easier. Representation is weaponized when the people in power do not want to do the work to bring about actual equity so they simply change the way power looks. Weaponizing representation is how the fight for economic equity becomes a call for more womxn in the 1%. It’s how millions rally around a Black, woman prosecutor because of her “historic” political moment compared to prison abolition.
Of the many people praising Lightfoot’s win, almost none are by the communities she supposedly represents. Most of the positive attention is from white (and wealthy) liberals who completely ignore what her political track record has meant for the city’s most vulnerable. What does it say about the importance of representation when the only people applauding it are the ones who hold the power? It means that the supposed achievement of representation was never for the vulnerable communities to begin with.
Compared to glibly applauding representation in all forms, even when it’s actively detrimental to the communities of hailed representatives, is impactful representation possible? And if so, what does it truly look like?
For one, representation can never be a replacement for material change. I don’t care if the majority of prison CO’s are gay, Black women; I don’t want prisons. I don’t care if the 1% is exclusively disabled womxn of color; we need to rid the world of opportunities to hoard wealth. Changing the aesthetics of oppressive structures to match the very people who are oppressed does nothing materially. Representation calls for us to change what power looks like compared to how power operates largely.
Moreover, representation cannot only be important to make Black and Brown power more palatable to white people. Usually, conversations around representation only come up in reference to white structures: representation within the 2020 US Presidential race, representation in #OscarsSoWhite, among similar calls in other white institutions. The call for more inclusivity should only be for us, as Black and Brown people, to see ourselves in positions of power, places where we can make change to better vulnerable communities. Inclusivity is to empower us and enable us to think outside of the capability of white institutions.
So, overall, can representation be meaningful? Is it something that we can truly get excited about? Rarely, but still, sometimes. When enacted by poorly veiled oppressors to redress power, representation is simply another one of their tools. However, true inclusivity aimed at addressing material harms by the most marginalized can be an additional way for the disenfranchised to correct systems of inequity. I want to be happy for Chicago’s first Black lesbian mayor, but I am not. I do not agree with her track record of over policing, her disregard for Black folx murdered by police, or opposition to Chicago’s poor. However, as I watch activists in Chicago, young Black and Brown LGBTQ+ folk, take back a city that feels so against us, maybe there is power in seeing people who look like me demand what is rightfully ours.
Gloria Oladipo is a Black woman who is a sophomore at Cornell University and a permanent resident of Chicago, IL. She enjoys reading and writing on all things race, gender, mental health, and more. You can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on instagram at @glorels.
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