IN CHICAGO (AND ELSEWHERE), WOMEN OF COLOR PROSECUTORS CONFRONT ENTRENCHED POWER

Were you confused by the fallout from Jussie Smollett’s apparent staging of a hate crime against himself? Some people felt let down when — after Chicago’s police chief publicly excoriated the young actor — no charges were filed against him. Was it fair for Smollett to walk away from all that chaos when so many men of color are imprisoned for far less vivid violations?

At a time when our criminal justice system is under scrutiny for outcomes driven more by race than by justice, the Smollett incident is worth revisiting. Because we’re also in an era when a small cluster of progressive prosecutors are seeking to change that system from within — and it’s no coincidence that the Cook County prosecutor at the center of the Smollett controversy is among a handful of women of color elected recently under the banner of reform.

The decision to not charge Smollett was made by State’s Attorney Kim Foxx, an African American woman standing in vivid contrast to the vast majority of elected prosecutors, who are 95% white. In fact, nearly 80% of prosecutors are white men, a shocking figure when you consider the disproportionate impact their decisions have on families of color. Foxx ran on reducing the unnecessary incarceration of people of color, and has explained the broader context for her choice regarding Smollett:

[O]ur criminal justice system is at its best when jails are used to protect us from the people we rightly fear, while alternative outcomes are reserved for the people who make us angry but need to learn the error of their ways without seeing their lives irrevocably destroyed… I was elected on a promise to rethink the justice system, to keep people out of prison who do not pose a danger to the community.

Notably, the most pointed attacks on Foxx have come from the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), the notoriously right wing police union that vociferously defends officers charged with misconduct. The FOP wants Foxx to fail. The FOP is protecting the entrenched systems under scrutiny by Foxx and other prosecutors of color like Aramis Ayala in Orlando; Kim Gardner in St. Louis; and Marilyn Mosby in Baltimore. All are under attack by police unions, white nationalists, and elected officials invested preserving in the status quo. In Florida, Governor Rick Scott memorably removed Ayala from 23 cases when she announced that her office would no longer pursue the death penalty. The Florida Supreme Court sided with Scott against Ayala, and just days ago, she announced she will not be running for reelection.

As criminal justice reform and police accountability gain traction in Chicago, the Smollett controversy must also be viewed against the broader backdrop of the unfolding transformation of Chicago’s political landscape. Less than three years after Foxx took office, the city elected its first black lesbian mayor. Meanwhile, Chicago’s Board of Alders is increasingly populated by a diverse cohort of younger, more progressive leaders backed by grassroots movements for racial and economic justice. The rage against Foxx isn’t about Jussie Smollett walking free — it’s about resistance to long-overdue systemic change.

Here at the Reflective Democracy Campaign, we track and analyze the demographics of political power to reveal the larger forces behind the headlines. It was our first-ever study of the race and gender of elected prosecutors that alerted Americans to the shocking dissonance between the mostly white men making sentencing decisions, and the defendants of color punished more severely than whites for the same offenses. Our data on politicians across the country leaves no doubt that white men, who at 30% of the population occupy 62% of elected offices, hold disproportionate power. And the attacks on Foxx, Ayala, and their fellow reformers show just how hard these men will fight to hang on to that power, defying the voters who want an end to the biases and the overreach of the Old Boys’ Club.