If you’re in Chicago, surely you know about the recent uproar over the proposed school closings. Chicago Public Schools (CPS) has proposed to shut down 54 schools in the city. The vast majority of them are in low-income, Black neighborhoods. “Let’s not pretend that’s not racist,” said Chicago Teacher’s Union (CTU) president, Karen Lewis at a huge downtown rally a few weeks ago that brought together thousands of teachers, parents and kids. She called the proposed closings “racist and classist.”
Among the most bandied-about claims of racism from the proposal’s opponents is that kids will have to cross several gang territories to get to the new schools they’ve been assigned to. In Chicago, “gangs” control blocks, not large territories. This means that kids already had to risk crossing gang boundary lines to get to the schools closest to them. If the proposed closings (or even some of them) go through, many kids will have to cross several more gang boundaries. That is, the risk to them increases exponentially. To increase the risk for Black and Brown kids, who are already at risk from violence, poverty, degraded neighborhoods and lack of jobs, is racist. It isn’t necessary that anyone making these decisions are racists themselves (they probably aren’t). But, when people of color are disproportionately and negatively affected in this way (very few White kids will be so affected), what else can you call that? It’s racism, of the structural variety. The CTU and the coalition of organizations and families who are fighting the proposed school closings are framing it largely as a fight against this kind structural racism that has been persistent in Chicago and around the country for decades.
Here’s where it gets tricky. The people responsible for the proposal also claim to be fighting racism….
The public face of the school closing proposal is CPS chief Barbara Byrd-Bennet (“3-B” as mayor Emmanuel calls her). When Karen Lewis cried racism, Byrd-Bennet took umbrage.
“What I cannot understand, and what I will not accept, are charges that the proposals I am offering are racist,”she said. She seemed to take it personally, as if she was being accused of being a racist herself.
But triple-B is a very smart woman; surely she understands the racism-without-racists paradox. Based on what she has said publicly, she understands the need for the school closings to be connected to some of the economic and demographic shifts that have occurred in the city. A lot of Black families were forced out of South and West side neighborhoods when public housing “reform” shifted folks into other neighborhoods over the past few decades. There’s also been a middle class flight from the South and West sides. Black folks with some means have been moving to the Southern and Western suburbs where there’s some space, some peace and quiet. Where you can raise a kid. Oh, yeah, and where there’s decent schools. Not like the ones in Chicago that have seen declining enrollment.
And this is Byrd-Bennet’s point. Underfunded, failing schools with declining enrollment is bad for youth of color too. “To refuse to challenge the status quo that is failing thousands of African-American students year after year, consigning them to a future with less opportunities than others, that’s what I call racist,” she said.
On the issue of gangs and safety, she said “we cannot and should not allow gangs to dictate the future of the city or limit the futures of our children.” This would be racist too. “I cannot agree with adults who would use the excuse of gangs to leave children trapped in failing schools,” she said.
CPS’ point is, closing under attended, failing schools, and consolidating limited resources means a better educational experience for these kids. It’s worth the risk of gang violence, they seem to be saying, and that the proposal will fight the persistent racial inequality in public education that leads to more than half of Black and Brown kids (here and nationally) to not graduate high school.
Some people think that CPS is doing Mayor Emmanuel’s bidding. They think he favors business over education for youth of color. Community activists have said that Byrd-Bennet was brought in to do the bidding of the mayor and the school board. But the mayor supports Byrd-Bennet’s assertion that the plan to close all these schools is actually an anti-racist act. In a recent interview on WBEZ, he said: “If 61 percent of the city’s youth are graduating from high school, but among African-American adolescent males, it’s 44 percent, but you do nothing, what does that say? Is that enlightened? Is that progressive?”
Emmanuel says the CTU has no better ideas than closing over 50 schools. If you check out their website, you’ll see they actually have a few ideas.
My point here isn’t to argue for or against the proposal. Though, in interest of full disclosure, my sympathies do lie more with the CTU and the opponents of the proposal. I think schools should not be closed but invested in, and that communities should be rebuilt and revitalized around them (but that’s another story). I’m also not naive enough to think that a school board alone can accomplish what needs to be accomplished when it comes to the tragic state of public education in this country. The problem is national and systemic and goes way beyond any given school district. CPS is constrained by a cultural failure that is national in scope. And no matter what happens with CPS schools, they will continue to fail because the country is failing when it comes to education. If, as Dr. King suggested, budgets are moral documents, the fact that the national military budget is about 7 times larger than the education budget should tell you all you need to know about our country’s corrupt values (but that’s another story)….
What I do want to point out is that the two main antagonists in this fight over school closings are women of color, both of whom claim to be fighting for the futures of youth of color in Chicago. Giving Triple-B the benefit of the doubt for the time being (that she really does believe that closing these schools will be better for Black and Brown kids), we have a very interesting phenomenon: people who are fighting for youth of color actually fighting over them. This is the racialization paradox in full swing. Both sides have a valid argument (giving them both the benefit of the doubt for the time being). It is true that shitty, crumbling, underfunded schools in depleted neighborhoods is a manifestation of historically entrenched racism. It is also true that closing an historically high number of schools in mostly Black neighborhoods, compounding the risks and conflicts those kids already experienced, is another manifestation of that entrenched racism.
Here’s the third truth, that (if anything can) transcends the paradox: As the fight plays out, in the media and in the streets, it will be as much over the kids as it is for them. One side will claim racism, and they’ll be right. The other side will do the same, and they’ll be right in another way. Both sides will invoke the children’s futures. Both sides will trot kids out for protests and media events. And both sides will try to rally kids and their parents to their cause. Whichever side is right, they’ll both be vying against each other to get the kids and their parents on their side. And whoever wins the fight, will undoubtedly attribute the victory to the kids’ and their families’ support. And they’ll be right, because if there were no poor Black and Brown kids in trouble because our society is corrupt, there would be no fight to have…
And when the fight is over, and the dust settles; when the kids are settled into their new schools (or their old ones), and when Byrd-Bennet is off to some other city to run the schools and Karen Lewis is replaced with some other firebrand, things will be back to normal. About half of the Black and Brown kids in the city will not graduate high school. And the ones that do will be at significant social disadvantage compared to their White peers. And in a few more years or decades, when the economy crashes again, or there’s another war draining our human and economic resources, the fight will resume afresh; fighting for and over youth of color. Circle of life my friends, circle of life…. I suppose the good news is, there’s always a good military career available to Chicago’s South and West side youth.