The Tragic Murder of Adam Toledo Lays Bare Institutional Racism in Chicago

Nick Reed, Scarlet Staff

With the arrest and successful prosecution of George Floyd’s murderer, Derek Chauvin, many thought a new era of police accountability was within reach. However, around the time of the verdicts reading in Minneapolis, only a few hundred miles away footage was released showing the murder of a young black child at the hands of police.

The victim, Adam Toledo, was a 13-year-old boy shot to death in Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood. The footage is quite graphic, and for the sake of everyone’s mental health and out of respect for Toledo and his family, I’ll link an article here chroniciling the timeline of the murder so no one will have to watch it themselves.

The gist of it is not too shocking given the recent influx in video footage of this nature; a young black individual was shot at point blank range while being seemingly unarmed. The body camera footage was withheld for weeks as a court order was needed to share footage involving a minor, but the response was quick upon release. Protests enveloped Chicago and the nation, with renewed calls of police accountability and an end to the cycle of violence.

However, the story doesn’t start there. Chicago is a special case within the United States when it comes to violence and policing. The reason for this? Chicago’s extensive history of institutional racism.

Chicago is considered by many to be the archetypal American city. With a population of roughly  three million, Chicago is the third largest American city, and the largest city in the American Midwest.

It is also an especially diverse city, attracting thousands of immigrants in the Nineteenth and Twentieth centuries from across the world including Jews, Italians and Poles. It also has a large Black community, making up around a third of the population and the second largest ethnic group in the city. The Chicago metropolitan area actually has the third largest African American population, only behind New York City and Atlanta.

While Black people have been part of Chicago’s history almost since its founding, they began to make up a larger and larger share of the population during the Great Migrations as Black southerners began to leave in droves in search of economic opportunity and to escape segregation. The Black population of Chicago skyrocketed from 40,000 in 1910 to 278,000 in 1940.

They were not, however, welcomed with open arms. White Chicagoans feared this new demographic change, and Chicago’s immigrant community detested the newfound economic conditions. For this reason, the city of Chicago began enacting segregationist practices.


I spoke with a friend of mine from Chicago, Dahlia Mella-Goris, who recounted some of her experiences as an Afro-Latina in the city. She expressed just how prominently the effects of segregation are felt today, saying that even now when she tells people she’s from Humboldt Park, they automatically assume she is of Puerto Rican descent, the area’s dominant ethnic group.

Black people found difficulty finding jobs, and, due to redlining, were restricted to living only in certain areas in the city – mostly on the South Side. Black people were also barred from membership in popular city organizations, such as YMCA’s, Churches and PTAs.

This, combined with white flight in the 1950s and 1960s, has contributed to the situation seen in the city today. Chicago currently has among the highest murder rates in the US, reaching 795 murders in 2020 – more than Los Angeles and New York combined.

The effects of Chicago’s history of racism are also prevalent in it’s policing. The Chicago Police Force, like many other police departments in American cities, has an extensive history of abuse, particularly against members of the Black community.

In 2014, Chicago saw the murder of Laquan Mcdonald, an unarmed teenager who was shot sixteen times. In 2012, the officer who shot an uninvolved bystander was aquitted. There were over 45 spent casings before the Police were done murdering Calvin Cross. They even shot him after he had stopped moving. Police brutality is an integral part of Chicago’s history of racial injustice.

Mella-Gorris told me of her own run-ins with the CPD, including the time a pair of officers attempted to run her ex-boyfriend off the road. She remembered the acquittal of  McDonald’s murderers, saying, “We sat there and we cried, because we realized things were never going to change.”

Additionally, Chicago also has an extensive history of police cover-ups and corruption. In that same shooting of Calvin Cross, officers reported that Cross had a gun and even shot at them, despite forensics saying otherwise. Similar veins can be found in the murder of Adam Toledo; police attempting to hide the body cam footage and accusing Toledo of having a handgun. This is not the first time the Chicago Police have lied to fit their narrative.

The story of Adam Toledo is, in many ways, the story of Chicago. A city founded on racism still feeling those reverberations today, where institutional racism abuses Black citizens and rewards Police brutality with promotions and praise.

When Lori Lightfoot became mayor in 2019, many across the country and within the city were hopeful that change was on the horizon. In fact, Lightfoot ran her campaign as a progressive seeking criminal justice reform.

This, however, is not the reality Chicago has found itself in. As seen earlier, homicides have only increased under her tenure, and Lightfoot has continually stood with the CPD. Toledo’s murder by Police and Lightfoots defense of the murderers only aids in highlighting how little has changed under her leadership. Many, including Mella-Gorris, have called for her resignation. 

The story of Chicago’s history of racism did not start with the murder of Adam Toledo. Until the institutions that brought his death are intensively reformed or abolished, that history will not end. It is also important to note, as Mella-Gorris told me, that the experiences of a black person in Chicago are not exclusive to Chicago. The institutions that murdered Adam Toledo are in place across the nation; in every city, in every town, every locality.

Chicago is a tragic example of the United States storied history of racial police violence. While many, like Mella-Goris, are proud to call it their home, the work that must be done for the city to heal is significant. Adam Toledo’s murder was not inevitable. It should not have happened.  Change is possible – we just have to be willing to put in the work.