Skin Privilege: Why Rahm Emanuel Keeps Getting Hired

Photograph Source: Daniel X. O’Neil – CC BY 2.0

Black people witness “skin privilege” everyday. It’s so matter of fact that it hardly gets a second notice unless Black people sound the alarm. We watch people harm us and land on their feet as if nothing ever happened. Yet, we seldom get the benefit of the doubt. In fact, we’re punished—even fatally–for the smallest infractions: allegedly passing a fake $20 bill, stopping to look at a construction site, shooting a warning shot at a home intruder in the middle of the night, failure to signal a lane change, walking out of a garage with a cellphone or playing in the park with a toy gun.

Very seldom do we get a chance to walk away or reinvent ourselves. Whatever our crime is against society it is a permanent scarlet letter that we’ll wear forever. It becomes the parenthetical that describes us until we die.

For a second time, it was announced that former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel is being tapped to join President Joe Biden’s administration–this time to serve as Japan’s next U.S. ambassador. The double standard is incredulous. Nearly everyone I talked to thought it was a done deal. As one report put it, “In selecting Emanuel to serve as his chief envoy to Japan, Biden will reward an informal adviser to his campaign and a significant force in Democratic Party politics for much of the last three decades with one of the highest-profile ambassadorial roles.”

The fact that Emanuel’s administration tried to cover up the murder of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald at the hands of a Chicago police officer is insignificant. He paid the price. He left with his dignity after deciding not to seek a third term for mayor. Avoiding a defeat, Emanuel was rewarded with becoming a political analyst for ABC News. He was rewarded with a job at an investment banking firm. Now, he’s being rewarded with a high profile ambassadorship.

Understand, this is the consolation prize after being bypassed for Transportation Secretary. Even opinion writers who aren’t fans thought he was the perfect pick. After all, he spent $109 million to improve the Riverwalk. Emanuel spent $64 million to build the Navy Pier Flyover. Separation of the Lakefront Trail got a $12 million jump-start from Republican businessman Ken Griffin, who in 2020 spent $54 million to defeat Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s Fair Tax. Emanuel implemented the Loop Link at a cost of $41 million to save seven minutes off the commute of suburbanites heading to Union Station. He designated 100 miles of bicycle lanes at a cost of $67,000 per mile.

In addition to giving his corporation counsel the green light to pay Laquan McDonald’s mother $5 million to keep the details of her son’s death quiet only five days after the runoff election, the former mayor closed 50 public schools in predominantly Black and brown neighborhoods. He closed six of 12 mental health clinics in these communities. Now, who needs access to mental health care more than Chicago’s Black and brown residents who are underserved, underemployed and under constant threat of violence?

He used millions of TIF dollars to subsidize private developers in predominantly white communities instead of incentivizing them to develop in blighted neighborhoods as originally intended by Mayor Harold Washington. Emanuel’s departing commemoration to his tenure as mayor was the $2.4 billion in taxpayer funding for two transformative projects in the South Loop and Lincoln Park. The mega developments will create two new neighborhoods over the next 20 years. He also got a chance to take credit for a new grocery store in the 5th Ward before leaving office, even though he put a brick on it for six years. The petty gentleman didn’t lift a finger to address the food desert created by Dominick’s closing its stores in Chicago. It wasn’t until the alderman brought a grocer to the table that City Hall got involved. He could care less that seniors had to travel miles out of their way to shop at a full service grocery store.

Emanuel had no vision when it came to Black communities. He supported the vision of aldermen who voted with him nearly 100%, but he repeatedly failed to see what Hillary Clinton calls the challenge of politicians, “…to practice politics as the art of making what appears to be impossible, possible.”

COVID -19 didn’t create the disparities that were revealed during the pandemic. The city’s Black and brown communities have been victims of benign neglect for decades. Emanuel continued the disinvestment started by Mayor Richard M. Daley. The only difference was Emanuel’s arrogance. His modes operandi was to rip the bandage off the wound—scab and all—with the belief it would heal and people eventually will forget the pain.

It was the belief of many of Emanuel’s Black voters that he would help our communities. His ties to the first Black United States President from Chicago, his work for Bill Clinton, his knowledge of federal government, his legislative skills as a congressman and White House aide and his connections to the investment world were suppose to translate into someone who finally would deliver for us.

In the 2019 municipal election, I discovered there was no internet access on 55th and Halsted streets, while setting up my candidate’s office. The 20th Ward candidate wanted to open her campaign office in the heart of the ward, but the trade-off meant using hotspots to access the internet. For years, no internet access meant students could do only basic homework, residents couldn’t conduct the day-to-day business transactions that most people take for granted or only attract businesses that aren’t reliant on the internet to operate–cash and carry type businesses. We found out that half the households in Englewood, Auburn Gresham and South Shore didn’t have internet access. It quickly became a campaign issue for Nicole Johnson.

Fast forward a year later to the COVID-19 pandemic and residents in Black and brown communities are left behind even further. The students can’t attend school remotely, workers can’t work from home and residents hardest hit by COVID-19 can’t schedule a vaccination appointment. A recent Chicago Tribune article reported, “more than 1 million first doses given in Chicago found nearly 60% of shots went to suburbanites and residents of neighborhoods deemed to have the lowest risk of COVID-19.” The lack of internet access was a major factor. Yet, Mayor Emanuel could find money to attract tourists, provide quality of life amenities for the elite and create whole communities out of thin air.

I’m not saying Emanuel didn’t do anything for Black and brown residents, but the bad outweighs the good. Regardless of his record, there are people in Biden’s ear advocating for him to add to Emanuel’s resume. As usual, the same people who helped elect Biden are being kicked to the curb. By elevating Emanuel, Chicago’s Black voters are reminded just how insignificant our pain is in the big scheme of things.

Imagine if the elite and powerful advocated just as vociferously for us. Imagine if they would forgive our transgressions so easily. Imagine if they made sure to help us always land on our feet. That my friend are the benefits of “skin privilege,” something we can only witness, but seldom know.

This column first appeared on Delmarie Cobb’s blog, Chicago Color.

Delmarie Cobb writes at Chicago Color.