Eras­ing black past — and fu­ture

The Norwalk Hour - - OPINION - Wendy Lecker is a colum­nist for the Hearst Con­necti­cut Me­dia Group and is se­nior at­tor­ney at the Ed­u­ca­tion Law Cen­ter.

The in­crease in racist at­tacks and voter sup­pres­sion across the coun­try prompts many whites to claim that this ug­li­ness is “not who we are” as Amer­i­cans. Sadly, th­ese events merely re­in­force how per­va­sive racism is in Amer­i­can so­ci­ety and pol­icy.

A new book, “Ghosts in the School­yard: Racism and School Clos­ings on Chicago’s South Side,” de­scribes how African-Amer­i­can com­mu­ni­ties ex­pe­ri­ence ed­u­ca­tion re­form poli­cies, par­tic­u­larly school clo­sures, in the con­text of the his­tory of ra­cial seg­re­ga­tion and dis­crim­i­na­tion in Chicago. The au­thor, Eve Ewing, is a pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Chicago, and a grad­u­ate of and for­mer teacher in the Chicago pub­lic schools.

In 2013, Mayor Rahm Em­manuel’s ad­min­is­tra­tion closed 49 schools, on the pre­text that the schools had low test scores and were “un­der-uti­lized.” The clo­sures dis­pro­por­tion­ately af­fected African-Amer­i­can stu­dents in the in­tensely seg­re­gated dis­trict.

The ques­tion­able stan­dard used to de­ter­mine “un­der­uti­liza­tion” was large class size — 30 chil­dren per class. When pre­dom­i­nately white Chicago neigh­bor­hoods suf­fered large pop­u­la­tion de­clines, CPS never con­sid­ered school clo­sures there. CPS claimed it would send stu­dents to “bet­ter” schools, but the re­ceiv­ing schools had test scores just a few points above those slated for clo­sure. From 2000 to 2015, CPS closed 125 neigh­bor­hood schools in com­mu­ni­ties of color, while open­ing 149 char­ter schools and se­lec­tive ad­mis­sion pub­lic schools.

“I feel like I’m at a slave auc­tion ... Be­cause I’m like, beg­ging you to keep my fam­ily to­gether. Don’t take them and sep­a­rate them.”

This plea was ut­tered by a Chicago pub­lic school prin­ci­pal at one of the pub­lic hear­ings in 2013. Pro­fes­sor Ewing re­viewed the tes­ti­mony of the throngs of com­mu­nity mem­bers who came out to op­pose gut­ting their schools. The schools, which had ed­u­cated gen­er­a­tions of the same fam­i­lies, were com­mu­nity in­sti­tu­tions. Par­ents, teach­ers and stu­dents de­scribed them as fam­i­lies that pro­vided con­ti­nu­ity and sta­bil­ity for the en­tire neigh­bor­hood.

The anal­ogy to a slave auc­tion was not far-fetched. As Ewing notes, “the in­ten­tional dis­rup­tion of the AfricanAmer­i­can fam­ily has been a pri­mary tool of white supremacy.” In Chicago, this is not the first time AfricanAmer­i­can com­mu­ni­ties were torn apart by govern­ment pol­icy. Wooed to the north by la­bor re­cruiters dur­ing the great mi­gra­tion, African-Amer­i­cans were con­fined to one neigh­bor­hood, even­tu­ally dubbed Bronzeville, by vi­o­lence, re­stric­tive covenants and, later, hous­ing pol­icy. The com­mu­nity turned this forcibly seg­re­gated neigh­bor­hood into a vi­brant place — a hub for mu­sic and the arts. Pub­lic hous­ing poli­cies fa­vored fam­i­lies. Con­se­quently, Bronzeville had a dense con­cen­tra­tion of chil­dren. Lo­cal of­fi­cials re­fused to in­te­grate schools, so th­ese chil­dren at­tended pre­dom­i­nately African-Amer­i­can neigh­bor­hood pub­lic schools. More­over, CPS con­sis­tently failed to in­vest in th­ese seg­re­gated schools. De­spite lo­cal ac­tivism and fed­eral in­ter­ven­tion over the years, Chicago has done lit­tle to ad­dress school or res­i­den­tial seg­re­ga­tion.

In the late 1990s, Chicago de­mol­ished much of Bronzeville’s pub­lic hous­ing, oust­ing many of its res­i­dents. Par­ents who were able sent chil­dren to live with rel­a­tives who re­mained in Bronzeville in or­der to pre­serve vi­tal school re­la­tion­ships. As Ewing ob­serves, the loss of stu­dent pop­u­la­tion in Bronzeville was the re­sult of overt govern­ment pol­icy.

To Bronzeville res­i­dents, the 2013 round of school clo­sures was the con­tin­u­a­tion of a pat­tern of seg­re­ga­tion, dis­place­ment and un­der­fund­ing by Chicago of­fi­cials. One res­i­dent de­scribed CPS’s at­ti­tude as “I poured gaso­line on your house and then it’s your fault it’s on fire.”

There is ex­ten­sive ev­i­dence show­ing that the 2013 Chicago school clos­ings di­min­ished ed­u­ca­tional op­por­tu­ni­ties for the chil­dren whose schools closed. Ewing demon­strates that the ac­com­pa­ny­ing loss of re­la­tion­ships, iden­tity and sense of his­tory was just as devastating. The com­mu­nity mourned lost con­nec­tions with teach­ers, staff, stu­dents, and some­thing larger. Ewing de­tails some of the per­son­al­i­ties be­hind the names of the closed schools — no­table African-Amer­i­can pro­fes­sion­als from the same com­mu­nity. As one stu­dent noted, “That’s how you get black his­tory to go away. Clos­ing schools (es­pe­cially those named for prom­i­nent African-Amer­i­cans).” In the rare in­stance where a school slated for clo­sure, Dyett High School, was saved af­ter a com­mu­nity-wide hunger strike, a stu­dent de­clared that “(w)e value our ed­u­ca­tion more be­cause of what peo­ple sac­ri­ficed.”

“Ghosts in the School­yard” il­lus­trates how sup­pos­edly ob­jec­tive met­rics of­fi­cials use to judge a school’s quality and fate are far from neu­tral and fail to ac­count for a host of con­sid­er­a­tions crit­i­cal to the com­mu­nity af­fected. As Ewing con­cludes, if we fail to con­sider his­tory, com­mu­nity, race, power and iden­tity when fram­ing and in­ves­ti­gat­ing the prob­lems fac­ing our pub­lic schools, we will fail to find so­lu­tions that serve the best in­ter­ests of chil­dren and com­mu­ni­ties.

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