Well, we finally did it, America. The muscular, broad-shouldered city with the glory-days reputation of being hog butcher for the world inaugurated its first gay, black, female mayor.
On Monday, Lori Lightfoot, a former assistant U.S. attorney, was sworn in alongside her white wife, Amy Eshleman, and their 10-year-old daughter, Vivian.
It was a fitting tableau of a family that, though likelier found on Chicago’s liberal North Side, still represents important constituencies in all corners of the city: mothers who struggle to make it in a town that is rapidly becoming too expensive to live in, LGBTQ folks who are searching for both equality and a visible example of accessing power, and children of color who must navigate the complexities of adoption.
It’s not a moment too soon.
Chicago has been dominated by white, male mayors who have wielded what people around these parts call clout, doling out business and personal favors to the heads of neighborhood fiefdoms in return for get-out-the-vote operations that virtually ensured long-lasting tenures.
And where has all of it led the city? Budget shortfalls, pension overruns and stunning inequalities in massively under-resourced public schools and neighborhoods vs. wealthy enclaves with tony private schools. It has reinforced the perception of murderous lawlessness on the South Side and chic, safe affluence on the North Side. Plus it has given the city a taste for taking on big projects like signature museums and architectural gems while neglecting a housing crisis for the poor and middle-income residents.
Such long-standing and deeply entrenched challenges won’t be magically fixed by the mayor’s skin color, cultural competence or preference in romantic partner.
Yet ... what has been overshadowed in all the mentions of her making history with her demographics is the fact that Lightfoot overcame her skin color, culture and sexual identity to leap over the inevitable gatekeepers to achieve her professional goals.
Lightfoot somehow barreled past or sneaked around the myriad expectations that come with being a poor person and a gay woman of color. She earned a law degree and subsequently spent an award-winning career in law enforcement, first as a litigator and then in oversight roles at one of the city’s most highly visible organizations, the Chicago Police Department. The impact of her accomplishment is all the more impressive when we look at the research on everything from students clocking higher academic gains from teachers whose background fits theirs, to older patients faring better when cared for by a doctor whose race or ethnicity fits their own.
The two-thirds of Chicagoans who are not non-Hispanic white are left with a small bit of hopeful expectation that a mayor who has circumvented so many racial and gender thickets might finally provide the attention and investment necessary for them to thrive again.
The adage “you can’t be what you can’t see” is another way to say that a big idea or identity isn’t possible, on a mass scale at least, until you see it with your own eyes.
Now Chicago’s first black, woman mayor is openly gay and loves a mixed-race nuclear family of women. It’s breathtaking to imagine how many people—of all races, ethnicities, ages, genders and identities—she and her spouse and child will inspire.
Make no mistake about it: Lightfoot will mess up. She’ll make ham-handed mistakes.
She’ll fail to heroically, single-handedly fix the problems that her predecessors have created and subsequently mismanaged for decades.
But right now—at a moment in our nation’s history where there seem to be few people of color entrusted with the power and prominence to make lasting and positive changes—Lightfoot has two opportunities.
The first is to demonstrate, again, that black women (and by proxy, other women of color) are ultra-competent winners who can get the job done long after we’re done celebrating their demographic attributes.
And the second, and most important, is that Lightfoot has the potential to demonstrate to Chicago and the rest of the country that strategic investments of money and other resources into hitherto overlooked communities have the potential to repair and rebuild a rapidly diminishing middle class.
Those who stand to benefit—and really, it’s all of us—wish her well.