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Erasing black past — and future

November 9, 2018

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 “under-utilization” 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 African-American family has been a primary tool of white supremacy.” In Chicago, this is not the first time African-American 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.

Wendy Lecker is a columnist for the Hearst Connecticut Media Group and is senior attorney at the Education Law Center.

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