Xolela Mangcu: From Harold Washington to Lori Lightfoot: Cultural Transformation and A Sense of Possibility in Chicago

on left: man wearing a suit and tie; on right: woman speaking at a podium

Harold Washington, on left. Lori Lightfoot, on right. photo on left / Biographical Directory of the United States Congress. photo on right / Daniel X. O'Neil, Wikimedia Commons

Xolela Mangcu is a professor of sociology and history, and interim director of Africana Studies at George Washington University. He was previously professor of sociology at the University of Cape Town, and a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, The Brookings Institution, The Rockefeller Foundation, Harvard University, University of London, and MIT. In 2015, he was awarded South Africa's most prestigious academic award, the Harry Oppenheimer Fellowship.

Mangcu has authored and edited a total of nine books, including Biko: A Life, which won the University of Cape Town's Meritorious Award, The Meaning of Mandela (essays by Wole Soyinka, Henry Louis Gates Jr., and Cornel West) and Becoming Worthy Ancestors (essays by Benedict Anderson, Kwame Anthony Appiah, and Martin Bernal). He is now working on two books — the first African-authored biography of Nelson Mandela and Harold Washington's Cultural Transformation of Chicago. He has written a regular column for South Africa's leading newspapers.

South Africa's Sunday Times described him as "possibly South Africa's most prolific public intellectual."

He obtained his Ph.D. in city and regional planning at Cornell in 1997 under the supervision of Professor Pierre Clavel.


Lori Lightfoot's recent election as the first black, woman, and gay mayor of Chicago brings to mind an earlier one — the election of Harold Washington as the city's first African American mayor in 1983. Lightfoot's election also took Mangcu back to his dissertation on Washington written at Cornell under the direction of Pierre Clavel. The dissertation challenged structuralist evaluations of the administration that depicted as a failure because it did not reverse inherited patterns of economic inequality. Drawing on Corrigan and Sayer's concept of the state as cultural formation, he argued that Washington's greatest legacy lay in the transformation of the city's notoriously racist and corrupt political culture under former mayor Richard J. Daley.

The talk will show how Washington changed the rituals and rules of state formation to attract into City Hall a new generation of African American, Latino, and women leaders including Cook County leaders such as Toni Preckwinkle, Jesus Garcia, and David Orr; Congressmen Danny Davis, Luis Guiterrez, Jesus Garcia; Senator Carol Mosely Braun; and presidential advisors Valerie Jarrett and David Axelrod. Former President Obama was also inspired to move to Chicago by Washington. As his biographer, David Remnick, put it, "there is no telling how Obama might have developed had he answered an ad to work in some other city, but it is clear that the history of African Americans in Chicago — and the unique political history of Chicago, culminating in Washington's attempt to form a multiracial coalition-provided Obama with a rich legacy to learn from." While much of the planning literature has focused on the department of economic development under another Cornell graduate, Rob Mier, the talk will focus on the strategic, administrative changes introduced by James Montgomery and Judd Miner as heads of the department of law. It is too early to say if Lightfoot's will continue in this progressive tradition, but we can say that Washington left her with an impressive leadership record to learn from.

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