George Floyd’s murder has sparked a continuing conversation about dismantling systemic racism, defining privilege and changing the face of — and access to power. But what happens when someone in power dares to shift from simply having the conversation to creating actionable change? As Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot has found out — they’re likely to be met with discomfort and controversy.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s unprecedented announcement
While celebrating her second anniversary as mayor, Lightfoot announced that she would only be giving one-on-one interviews to people of colour. Her reasoning came in a poignant letter sent to local media, explaining that the ‘overwhelming whiteness and maleness’ of Chicago media outlets doesn’t reflect a city where two-thirds of the residents are people of colour. She went on to explain that there are zero women of colour who cover the Chicago City Hall beat, which she finds unacceptable.
I ran to break up the status quo that was failing so many. That isn’t just in City Hall.
It’s a shame that in 2021, the City Hall press corps is overwhelmingly White in a city where more than half of the city identifies as Black, Latino, AAPI or Native American.
— Mayor Lori E. Lightfoot (@chicagosmayor) May 19, 2021
The letter was a vulnerable account of her own experiences as the first Black and openly gay woman to be elected mayor of Chicago. “As a person of colour, I have throughout my adult life done everything I can to fight for inclusion in every institution that I have been part of and being mayor makes me uniquely situated to shine a spotlight on this most important issue,” she wrote.
She emphasized that the move was made to save a democratic system that she fears is ‘on life support,’ saying that the lack of representation in the press room doesn’t consider the perspectives of such a diverse city. “It is impossible for this glaring lack of diversity not to be reflected in the daily coverage of government, politics and city life every single day.”
Lightfoot’s decision is met with controversy and questions about her timing
It’s undeniable that Mayor Lightfoot is making a crucial point that needs to be addressed. A 2018 Pew Research Center study revealed that over 75 per cent of US newsroom employees are non-Hispanic White people, and more likely to be male.
Craig Dellimore, political editor for CBS radio affiliate WBBM, and one of the only Black reporters with access to Chicago City Hall, commented on Lightfoot’s decision, saying her letter “raises an issue that needs to be raised.” And though The National Association of Black Journalists went on record to say they don’t support the mayor’s decision, they admitted that her actions shine “a needed spotlight on the call for a greater commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion across the media industry.”
Others question Lightfoot’s timing. Manny Ramos, a reporter of colour for the Chicago Sun-Times was left confused about the decision. “I just don’t understand why now,” Ramos told The Washington Post. “I’m wanting to understand, why did it take two years for this? Did my questions not matter until now?”
Gregory Pratt, a Latino reporter for the Chicago Tribune, tweeted that politicians don’t get to pick and choose who covers them.
I am a Latino reporter @chicagotribune whose interview request was granted for today. However, I asked the mayor’s office to lift its condition on others and when they said no, we respectfully canceled. Politicians don’t get to choose who covers them. https://t.co/YMW8M8ZgJm
— Gregory Pratt (@royalpratt) May 19, 2021
On the most extreme end, some in conservative media have labelled her racist, with Fox New’s Tucker Carlson calling her a Nazi and a monster. Thomas Catenacci, a white reporter for an outlet associated with Carlson, recently filed a lawsuit on the grounds of discrimination.
Can a policy like this one actually enact meaningful change?
Systemic racism is a beast to dismantle partly because of how long the systems have remained in place, and the powerful groups who have a vested interest in keeping them there. Though Lightfoot’s policy is well-intentioned, there is no clear consensus on whether this is the policy that will make a meaningful impact. While some POC reporters are grateful for the access, some feel it puts them in an awkward position and may be a way of controlling the narrative around the mayor’s second anniversary.
Regardless of the reaction, the policy has pushed the equality conversation even further — this time with action behind it. It begs the question: why are newsrooms lacking so severely in representation? Whose voices and perspectives aren’t heard when these spaces are almost completely white?
The last question, still unanswered: how can we see equality?