Ghosts in the Schoolyard

Racism and School Closings on Chicago's South Side

by Eve Ewing

Book Summary by Brian T. Murphy

“There is a need to consider that losing the school represents another assault in a long line of racist attacks against a people, part of a history of levying harmful policies against them, blaming them for the aftermath, then having the audacity to pretend none of it really happened. There is the way some of these policy decisions are camouflaged by pseudoscientific analysis that is both ethically and statistically questionable. There is our intensely segregated society to account for, in which those who attend the school experience a fundamentally different reality then those who have the power to steer its future. And finally, there is the intense emotional aftermath that follows school closure, which can have a profound, lasting effect on those who experience the closure even as it is rarely acknowledged with any seriousness by those who made the decision.”

Major themes

 

  • “But these relationships and this history–the culmination of a century of segregation that fenced people in, then suddenly forced them out–goes unacknowledged in an official district narrative that refers to “underutilization” as something that simply happens–an act of nature.” P89

  • “Emmanuel a singular perspective on the Plan and the way it might affect the rest of the city–including its schools. Segregation, restrictive covenants, Willis Wagons, demolition of public housing–these policies all laid the groundwork for the present day reality of empty schools dotting the landscape. They are not obscure facts; they are front and center in the minds of the people who lived this history. But in the eyes of the district it’s as if they never happened.” P90

  • “They [policies] were racist because they were the culmination of several generations of racist policy stacked on racist policy, each one disregarding, controlling, and displacing black children and families in new ways layered upon the callousness of the last.” P91

  • “These questions, I contend, need to be asked about Chicago’s school closures, about school closures anywhere. In fact, they are worth asking when considering virtually any educational policy decision: What is the history that has brought us to this moment? How can we learn more about that history from those who have lived it? What does this institution represent for the communities closest to it? Who gets to make the decisions here, and how do power, race, and identity inform the answer to that question? In the case of Chicago, a city built upon a constantly evolving blueprint of segregation, asking such critical questions invariably brings us, one way or another, to the question of racism.” P159-160

Introduction

  • “[Gwendolyn] Brooks was the first African American to win a Pulitzer Prize, and she was the poet laureate of Illinois. But to many she will be remembered best as the bard of Bronzeville, the historically black community on Chicago’s South Side that she called home. Bronzeville has been lucky in this way, blessed with an undue share of storytellers in dreamkeepers, poets and bluesmen, journalists and freedom fighters. A review of their names–names like St. Clair Drake, Ida B. Wells, Nat King Cole–makes trying to tell a Bronzeville story seem like a foolish errand.” P3

  • “Two words emerged that I also read over and over: the schools, she said, were underutilized and underresourced. ‘But,’ I said aloud, ‘that doesn’t make any sense.’ How could the person charged with doling out resources condemn an institution for not having enough resources?” p5

  • “And then there was the question of race. Of the students who would be affected by the closures, 88 percent were black: 90 percent of the schools were majority black, and 71 percent had mostly black teachers–a big deal in a country where 84 percent of public school teachers are white.” P5

  • “This Book focuses on the school closures in Bronzeville. This community on the city’s majority-black South Side saw four schools slated for closure in 2013 (including the school where I’d taught), and since 1999 it has had sixteen schools either closed or entered into a “turnaround” process (where all faculty and staff lose their jobs and the school is turned over to a third party to hire new teachers).” P6

  • “Indeed, the story is not an objective one; I am not an objective observer, nor do I aspire to be. As critical race theorists have argued, claims to objectivity often serve as ‘hey camouflage for the self-interest, power, and privilege of dominant groups in the U.S. society.” P7

  • “…it is more accurate to think of racism as a set of structures organizing the way society works. This view characterizes racism as something that lives not in individuals, but in systems–in the fabric of American society.” P12  

1 – What a School Means

  • “This chapter tells the story of one group of people fighting to keep a school open –and, moreover, to see it reflect their vision for their community and their children’s education. We see that this community’s choice to resist a school’s being characterized as “failing” is in fact about much more than the school itself: it is about citizenship and participation, about justice and injustice, and about resisting people in power who want to transform a community at the expense of the people who live there.” P17

  • “We see this language, the archetype of the “failing school,” frequently in our society. The notion that the school is a failure creates a supposedly urgent space for the public to support policymakers in whatever drastic methods may be needed to address the failure. In this sense the rhetoric of the “failing school” serves as a bogey-man or as political theater, a mythology intended primarily to frighten us not into action, but into unflinching agreement with whatever action those in power opt to take. Why should anyone bother to defend a failure?” p25

  • Pages 25 to 46 describe communities struggles with school closure. Essentially, the Dyett school was to be closed. Protesters fought. They “won.” CPS, the mayor’s office, the alderman, among others, pretended to listen to the community. They pretended to hold meaningful hearings, issued a request for proposals (that saw only three proposals that were seemingly not reviewed), and community was shut out of the process. They protested again and politicians opened the school pretending they were on the same side as the Dyett Community. Some other proposal was chosen.

  • “The members of the Coalition did not see their plan for Dyett come to fruition. But they garnered national attention for a struggle that, years earlier, had implicitly been declared dead.” P49

2 – City of Losses

  • “Many educators and activists were especially incensed by the racial breakdown of the proposed closures: 80 percent of the students who would be affected were African American (about twice the proportion of black students in the district), and 87 percent of the schools to be closed were majority black.” p54

  • Chapter 2 set up: “The story of the underresourced and underutilized schools–and how they got that way–began long before Byrd-Bennett came to Chicago. In fact, it began long before she was born. In this chapter I will try to fill in the blanks in her statement by traveling a century back in time, because it is not possible to fundamentally understand the 2013 School closings in Bronzeville without knowing the history of the community. By studying how social systems have arisen over time, we can see not only how things are now, but how they could be otherwise.” P57

  • “By the time they were outlawed in the 1948 Supreme Court ruling in Shelley v. Kraemer, restrictive covenants had served their purpose by reinforcing a sort of invisible fence around Bronzeville. Ironically, even though this fence was created and forcibly maintained through fear, violence, and discrimination, it also set the stage for a degree of economic, political, and creative vitality for black Chicagoans.” P65

  • “As a consequence of its spatial isolation, Bronzeville became a semiautonomous residential and business district. Bronzeville residents also enjoyed some political autonomy; in 1928 they elected Congressman Oscar DePriest after a successful political career begun as the community’s alderman, making him the North’s first black member of the US House of Representatives.” P65

  • “The first Great Migration slowed during the years of the Depression as work dried up, but it picked up again after World War II. Soon Bronzeville’s swelling population, combined with the limitations of violence and restrictive covenants, inevitably produced a skyrocketing density that made life hard for residents.” P66

  • “By 1940 Bronzeville’s population was over 150,000, squeezed into an area of about three square miles–twice the city’s average density.” P67

  • “Now the CHA–through a combination of well-intentioned social policy and draconian federal policy–brought huge numbers of African American children into the confined area, at proportions far exceeding the rest of the city.” P71

  • “At one point Bronzeville held, packed within its narrow borders, the astounding figure of over 16,000 children per square mile–over four times the density of children in the city overall.” P74

  • “Unfortunately, ‘Chicago Standards’ included maintaining segregation at all costs. Rather than allow students to enroll in white schools, district officials created ‘double shifts’ where black students attended school for only part of the day, then traded off with a second group.” P76

  • “Willis’s [head of CPS ’53-66] response to these accusations presages the defense Byrd-Benett would make fifty-five years later. Although they were separated by their race, their background, in several decades, they mounted almost identical defenses while occupying the same role. Willis called segregation ‘a circumstantial thing’ (another version of Byrb-Benette’s assertion that school closings’ disproportionate impact on black students was ‘not racist, simply a fact’) and stated that the district was ‘not concerned with race when we build new schools. We build Schools where there are students.’” Basically, Ewing argues that CPS is operating in a historical vacuum, ignoring the racist conditions that set up inequitable crowding and segregation in the first place. Instead of correcting for it, CPS made decisions based on it. P78

  • “In short, during the years when Chicago’s segregated housing concentrated remarkable numbers of children in Bronzeville, the city’s segregated school system kept them from going elsewhere for their education. As new projects went up, so did the number of children attending the area’s schools–and in the coming years, as the walls of CHA residences came tumbling down, so did CPS enrollment.” P84

  • “And just like that, the Black Metropolis was a city of children no more. From 1990 to 1995, Bronzeville lost 272 children; from 1995 to 2000, it lost over 6,000. Naturally, this meant that schools saw major drops in the enrollment.” This was the result of city plans to demolish public housing and relocate black residents, all of the things that are a result of systemic racism. P87

  • “But one thing seems certain: the demolition of public housing in Bronzeville dealt the community’s schools a jolt from which they perhaps never recovered.” P89

  • “… when one considers the claim that the 2013 school closures work color-blind, race-neutral, or otherwise not racist; an honest discussion about the history of the CHA and CPS in Bronzeville, in particular, would have necessitated a tacit admission that both agencies were complicit in constructing the “invisible fence”–the social boundary that kept Bronzeville’s schools and housing deeply segregated throughout the twentieth century. Contrary to the statements from Byrd-Bennett, in Bronzeville “underutilization” of schools has everything to do with race.” P90-91

  • “They were racist because they were the culmination of several generations of racist policy stacked on racist policy, each one disregarding, controlling, and displacing black children and families in new ways layered upon the callousness of the last…So when this history goes undiscussed by a public official, it reinforces what many black Chicagoans already believe to be true: that school leaders are untrustworthy, that they do not have the best interests of black children in mind, and that they talk out of both sides of their mouths.” P91-92

3 – Dueling Realities

  • “In chapter 2 we explored why people care about “failing” institutions by looking at schools on a communitywide historical scale. We saw the ways racism and the policies of the CHA and CPS created an element of social instability for black families, who over the twentieth century had to cope with overcrowded and substandard housing, then the loss of public housing, as well as with overcrowded schools and the need to expend significant political energy demanding something better from CPS.” P96

  • “In this chapter we will pick it back to the twenty-first Century and moved to a much smaller scale to consider the implications of that history and those experiences: a world in which the CPS officials charged with running schools and the black students, teachers, and parents affiliated with those schools occupy a largely divergent realities. With those dueling realities come dueling belief systems and ideologies regarding how a school ought to be assessed and its future determined.” P96

  • In several pages Ewing discusses the metrics used to shutdown three schools, and the plain, dehumanized, supposedly unbiased way that these stats were presented to audiences. She gives “critical discourse analysis” of how the data presented make it seem as if there is no other choice but to close schools: “… that value-added scores matter and that a difference of 2.3 points between two schools is a meaningful indicator that one is better than the other; that 2011–12 is the only year worth looking at to make this decision; that the CEO’s guidelines for school actions are fair and reasonable. By implicitly presenting these questions as settled–as a given, as something we have all agreed on–district officials suggest that this is neutral evidence. We are to understand that these are the things that make a school good or bad and that this is beyond dispute, debate, or discussion. However, when its community members’ turn to take the microphone, we hear a very different view of reality.” P104

  • “This comment introduces an element of tension that was an undercurrent to many conversations about school closures in 2013: that while CPS claimed to have too many empty buildings and not enough students, the district had quite recently added new charter schools to its ‘portfolio.’” P112

  • “The students, parents, teachers, and community members who took time to appear at the hearings described in this chapter were doing more than arguing that their schools were “good schools” in the face of accusations of failure. They were arguing that their vision of the world, their experience, their very reality was valid. They had to make an argument for history: an argument that the events outlined in chapter 2 actually took place, an argument for considering the long-term impact of racism, and an argument that the legacy of each school actually counted for something.” P121

  • Ewing lays out a masterful argument against the privatization of education: “This in turn reflects the broader move toward neoliberalism in education. While neoliberalism is a broad idea that takes many forms in different contexts, in the context of public education it constitutes a set of ideals that assume that efficiency is an important goal in managing schools and public education systems; that the best way to achieve such efficiency is to allow schools to function within a free-market system based on competition, where the best schools will succeed and the worst ones will be driven to improve or shutdown…Through a neoliberal lens, “rather than ‘citizens,’ with rights, we are consumers of services. People are ‘empowered’ by taking advantage of opportunities in the market…This set of assumptions fails to account for some basic realities in a public school system. First, any enterprise dealing with the care and nurturing of children is likely to be inefficient at times, and striving for efficiency often requires sacrificing things like care, patience, and flexibility. Second, although a marketplace is premised on “winners” and “losers” competing against each other, the “consumers” in this case (parents and children) are not operating on a level playing field. The children who enter a school system may face poverty, homelessness, hunger, and health issues, and they vary in identity–in race, gender, disability, language practices, and all other things that make them who they are. Public schools have to account for all of these differences, which shape the outcomes they are measured on (graduation rates, standardized test scores, and so on). This leads us to the third problem: neoliberalism pushes schools to focus on the “winners,” those exceptional students who will be successful by these limited metrics, and two abandoned students who might lead to inefficiencies.” P122-123

4 – Mourning

  • Ewing documents a student who spoke powerfully on behalf of his school that was being closed down: “That’s how you get black history to go away. Closing schools…It’s like we’ve been through a lot and people always try to –I mean the same people who will take everything you have will blame it on you for not having anything.” P145

  • “For her closing the schools represents an ironic end to a cruel cycle of racism and disregard for black life that began before she was born. In both instances– the historical precedent and the present moment–the people who make the policy decisions are isolated from the fallout that follows them. They do not have to live in the affected communities or, because of the massive bureaucratic structure built around these policy decisions, to accept personal responsibility or even acknowledge their role in them. For those living within the Veil, the feeling is maddening. The reality you know to be true, because you witnessed it and everyone you know and love is still facing the consequences, goes unacknowledged.” P147

  • “In an era when national attention has been fixed on…observable gun violence–Bronzeville residents are attuned to a form of violence that is less direct and less immediately visible but no less lethal: structural violence. This form of violence creates systems within which death and despair are quiet but inevitable, and the weapons at hand are history, policy, and racism. And regardless of what the outside world may think about the quality or worth of closed schools as “failing institutions,” their role as crucial pillars of their communities means their wanton destruction is a key step in enacting such structural violence.” P151

  • “As the people of Bronzeville understand, the death of a school and the death of a person at the barrel of a gun are not the same thing, but they also are the same thing. The people of Bronzeville understand that a school is more than a school. The school is the site of a history and a pillar of black pride in a racist city. A school is a safe place to be. A school is a place where are you find family. A school is a home. So when they come for your schools, they’re coming for you. And after you’re gone, they prefer you be forgotten. Mourning, then, is how we refute that erasure. It’s a way to insist that we matter. It’s a way to remember.” P155-156

Conclusion: An Open Door

  • “What do school closures, and their disproportionate clustering in communities like Bronzeville, tell us about a fundamental devaluation of African American children, their families, and black life in general? Is there room for democracy and real grassroots participation any school system that has been run like an oligarchy?” p158

  • “There is a need to consider that losing the school represents another assault in a long line of racist attacks against a people, part of a history of levying harmful policies against them, blaming them for the aftermath, then having the audacity to pretend none of it really happened. There is the way some of these policy decisions are camouflaged by pseudoscientific analysis that is both ethically and statistically questionable. There is our intensely segregated society to account for, in which those who attend the school experience a fundamentally different reality then those who have the power to steer its future. And finally, there is the intense emotional aftermath that follows school closure, which can have a profound, lasting effect on those who experience the closure even as it is rarely acknowledged with any seriousness by those who made the decision.” P159

  • “It’s worth stating explicitly: my purpose in this book is not to say that school closures should never happen.” P159

  • “These questions, I contend, need to be asked about Chicago’s school closures, about school closures anywhere. In fact, they are worth asking when considering virtually any educational policy decision: What is the history that has brought us to this moment? How can we learn more about that history from those who have lived it? What does this institution represent for the communities closest to it? Who gets to make the decisions here, and how do power, race, and identity inform the answer to that question? In the case of Chicago, a city built upon a constantly evolving blueprint of segregation, asking such critical questions invariably brings us, one way or another, to the question of racism.” P159-160

  • “CPS is currently structured to minimize opportunities for meaningful community-informed decision making. The superintendent and the members of the school board are unilaterally appointed by the mayor, without restriction. In its long-term history, CPS has a demonstrated record of maintaining segregation and inequality. In its more recent history, the mayor’s leadership shows a general disregard for equity or for the transformative change that might get us there. In a city like Chicago, notorious for its corruption and widely undemocratic in most of its functioning, this is unlikely to change.” P162

  • Furthermore, there are myriad ways CPS enacts harmful policies that I have not discussed in depth because they go beyond the purview of this book, but that create the backdrop for it. They include the fact that suspension and expulsion are still disproportionately high among black students; the budget changes that have left students with disabilities to fend for themselves without the support they are legally entitled to; the fact that two-thirds of the police officers assigned to patrol CPS schools have previous conduct complaints on file.” P162-163

Think for Yourself. Dissolve your Allegiances.