The Fallacy of “Black and Brown” Rhetoric in Chicago: Why an Assumed Linked Fate Leads to Diluted Black Politics

Every single time that Mayor Lightfoot speaks about racial inequities in the City of Chicago, she utilizes a phrase that grates my nerves: “black and brown.” You can find this in many of her speeches, but I’ll quote a snippet from her August 2019 “State of the City” Address:

And we are working to develop policy to stand up a robust and healthy cannabis industry. One that will not only generate revenue for the city, but creates new business and job opportunities for black and brown people who have been the victims of the War on Drugs, and who to date, have mostly been excluded from the legitimate medical and recreational markets as entrepreneurs.

She, along with many of Chicago’s elected officials, uses this language with obdurate frequency, suggesting a linked political fate for these communities. But is this grounded in reality? Do the socioeconomic indicators suggest that Chicago’s black and brown neighborhoods are impacted by racist policies to the same degree? I wanted to parse this out for myself before I started becoming more vocal about my discomfort with this mythical “people of color” alliance, so I’ve done that here. And I want to make it clear at the outset: I’m not intending to make light of any of the obstacles faced by Chicago’s brown communities. I am simply suggesting greater specificity in discussions about racial parity for black communities in this city, leading us to a more sharply focused black political agenda.

Throughout this post, I will use black and ADOS (Black American Descendants of Slavery) interchangeably. Unfortunately, Chicago’s data is not disaggregated to account for the unique disadvantages suffered by Chicago’s Black ADOS community, but we know from a Pew Research analysis that black immigrants make up only 4% of Chicago’s overall black population.  I also know what I see with my eyes. I know where Chicago’s black immigrants live because that is where I grew up–my parents are Jamaican immigrants. In comparison to ADOS, we are typically found in more economically stable, multiracial North Side communities, having been allowed to gain proximity to whiteness when we arrived in the 80s and 90s….. long after ADOS were systematically segregated on the South and West sides for decades.  It is my hope that researchers focused on Chicago will begin to see the value in disaggregating data with a focus on lineage.marijuanaarrests-graph

The War on Drugs 

Let’s first directly address the mayor’s claims in the quoted text from the beginning of this post, in which she appeared to suggest that black and brown communities have suffered from repressive cannabis prohibition in a similar scale. The above graph, which is taken from a 2017 Chicago Reader article  and shows 2016 arrests for weed possession under ten grams, makes it clear that black communities bear the heaviest burden when it comes to marijuana-related arrests. I am fully in favor of the upcoming decriminalization, so there is no “desired” arrest rate in my mind…but to suggest that the 78% arrest rate for Black Chicagoans and 17% arrest rate for Latinx Chicagoans are comparable is asinine. Further, there has been a lot of talk about how cannabis profits can be leveraged as a reparative force in “black and brown” communities. If we keep making these unsupported comparisons, we will inevitably end up hearing policymakers suggest that black and brown communities need comparable restitutive policies. The data above shows that would be dishonest and unfair to black communities. Elected officials must make it clear that the War on Drugs has done the MOST harm to ADOS communities by a wide margin, and insist that any restitutive measures reckon with this fact.

Criminal Justice

10-1 Cook County Demographics

To widen our scope beyond marijuana prohibition, we also frequently hear discussions of criminal justice that use the vague “black and brown” or “communities of color.” We are led to believe through this language that the criminal justice system holds a comparable number of black and brown individuals. This has no basis in reality, as you will find from the above screenshot of the Cook County population demographics report. According to this data, 73% of those in confinement and 67%. This means the black population in the Cook County system is about three times larger than the Latino population. Why are we having discussions about criminal justice reform that pretends there is a comparison to be made between these two communities?

Economic Indicators 

For my final point, I want to focus on the economic realities of Chicago’s ADOS communities. We frequently hear discussions that suggest Chicago’s Black and Latinx communities are suffering from “systemic disinvestment” (the Mayor’s words) to the same degree, but does the data support this? I examined some data from a 2019 Urban Institute report that investigates investment flow disparities. The data shows that Latino communities receive an average annual market investment per household of $8,569. The rate for black households? $4,927. And this is not to obfuscate or make light of the large gap between those numbers and the one for white households, which is $22,476. But again, we hide the distinct nature of ADOS failure if we do not reckon with the gap between “black and brown” communities. We also see this gap when looking at data for single-family property loans. From the report: “The median majority-white neighborhood receives 7.9 times the dollar volume of loans to owner-occupants as the median majority-Black neighborhood and 4.1 times the dollar volume of loans as the median majority-Latino neighborhood.” This suggests that there is a hierarchial relationship created for access to loans…and ADOS communities fall solidly at the bottom, with measurable space until you get to Latino communities. The craziest thing is that Mayor Lightfoot herself used this report to supplant her “systemic disinvestment” claim, which means she knows quite well the “black and brown” language of sameness doesn’t square with the data. This means that she is deliberately choosing to mask the distinct nature of ADOS economic suppression under people of color rhetoric, and she needs to be held accountable for the dishonesty.

Then, to further build out a complete economic snapshot of both communities, I utilized some snippets from the 2017 Prosperity Now Racial Wealth Divide report. It goes without saying that for all indicators, white Chicagoans are far outpacing every other racial/ethnic group, but here are a few measures that suggest some space between “black and brown” communities.

  • Latino liquid asset poverty is at a 71% rate, compared to the 67% rate for black folks. This is one of the only measures in which black folks are doing better than Latinos.
  • The median black household income is $30,303, which the median Latino household income is $41,188.
  • The black unemployment rate is double that of the Latino one at 18.7%, with the Latino unemployment rate at 9%.
  • Black businesses are worth half of Latino businesses at $47,246, with Latino businesses worth $153,244.

There is a clear case here for distance when describing the economic conditions of Chicago’s ADOS and Latino neighborhoods. They are not exactly the same, and the data confirms what we see with our own eyes. Neighborhoods like Pilsen are increasingly able to gain economic ground by being seen as “exciting ethnic enclaves,” while ADOS neighborhoods continue to languish with the devastating legacy of systemic disinvestment.


As I draw this to a close, I want to point out an outlier in Mayor Lightfoot’s rhetoric. During a May 2019 black women-focused event, she somehow found the courage to address Chicago’s black community in very specific terms.

I’ve seen the vastness of the black community. People who have been going to college for generations, people with money, people of influence, were unheard of from where I come from. And so what I would say to the people in this room and anybody else who’s listening: If we don’t take care of our people and our neighborhoods, and our communities, how can we expect other people to do that?”

“I have had the luxury of traveling all over this city, to be in lots of different communities, and one thing that jumps out at you is whether it’s the Bosnian community on the North Side, Jewish communities of all stripes, particularly the Orthodox community, the South Asian community, on and on and on; there is a sense of ownership. And they have created a network of infrastructure to support people, in particular those who are most challenged. Whether it’s seniors or young people, there is an infrastructure in a lot of those communities.

“There’s a reason why, for example, Little Village is the second largest economic driver in Chicago — because they value community and they’re not leaving anything on the table. So hear me when I say: ‘Black folks, we need to step up.’ I’m going to do my part as the mayor, because that’s what the city absolutely has an obligation to do. But I can only do it and we will only be successful, if the people of wealth, and let me be more specific, if black folks of wealth step up and put skin in the game.”

All of a sudden, Mayor Lightfoot was able to speak about the black community with a clarity and specificity that she doesn’t usually possess….only to essentially blame the black community for its own failures. She co-opted conservative bootstraper-ism rhetoric under the cloak of Garvey-esque black self-determination.

To conclude, we cannot afford to obfuscate ADOS failure in Chicago with the politically expedient language of a mythical shared fate with brown communities. We must reckon with the particular “accrued disadvantage” (to use a term from Yvette Carnell of Breaking Brown) that rests on the shoulders of Chicago’s ADOS communities. We don’t need this faux inclusive language, as if black concerns only become validated so long as they are merged with brown concerns. We don’t need to pretend that institutional racism is wielded against Chicago’s Latino community to the same degree that it is to Chicago’s ADOS communities. We need leaders with enough courage to be unapologetically clear about the debt owed to Chicago’s ADOS communities.