The resegregation of Chicago schools

July 17, 2013

Bob Simpson examines the racism behind that lies behind the school closings agenda in Chicago--and the efforts of parents, teachers and students to fight back.

AFTER THE Civil War, freed slaves demanded that schools be established as a tool of liberation. With the help of the Freedman's Bureau and hundreds of determined teachers, both Black and white, they succeeded in creating the first large-scale public education system in the American South.

Both Black and white students benefited as the nation struggled to reunite after the costliest war in U.S. history. One might think these African Americans would have received the thanks of a grateful nation and continued to be recognized for that accomplishment.

That's not what happened. Instead, they and their African American descendants were subjected to decades of cruel school segregation and racial discrimination. Discrimination in education also affected other people of color, as well as students with special needs. These discriminatory practices continue today in many school districts. One of these districts is the Chicago Public Schools (CPS).

That's why Sherise McDaniel, a CPS parent, joined with other CPS parents to sue the Chicago Board of Education to stop the school closings. The closing of 49 Chicago public schools, most of them in African American working-class neighborhoods is the latest example of CPS racial and special needs discrimination. McDaniel and the other parents were fed up with these harmful policies and the resulting inequities in educational achievement.

Parents and other activists march against racist school closures in Chicago
Parents and other activists march against racist school closures in Chicago (Sarah-ji)

With the help of the Chicago Teachers Union, the parents filed suit on the basis of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) for special needs students and the Illinois Civil Rights Act for African American students. The special needs part of the lawsuit is thoroughly explained in the article "Lives left in limbo" by Maureen Allen and Gala M. Pierce. The article you are reading will focus on the second part of the lawsuit dealing with racist nature of the closings.

The School Closings Agenda in Chicago

Claiming that the schools were underutilized and that CPS was facing a budget crisis, they were closed in the face of massive protest from across Chicago.

The public hearings concerning the school closings were heartbreaking displays of community anguish before the stony faces of CPS representatives who would not answer questions or engage in dialog.

After the first round of hearings, most of the schools in predominantly white areas were taken off the closing list. After the second round, most of the schools in the predominantly Latino neighborhoods were taken off. That left Black Chicago as the main target.

What you can do

Supporters are welcome to attend the parent lawsuits against the Chicago Board of Education from July 16-19, 10 a.m.-noon and 1 p.m.-4:30 p.m., at 219 S Dearborn, Courtroom 1225.

This was a naked attempt to play upon Chicago's historic and often violent racial divisions. It was especially painful to see high-ranking African American administrators like CEO Barbara Byrd Bennett dutifully carrying out these policies. At public meetings and hearings African Americans would often say about Bennett and the small minority of African Americans who backed the closings, "They may look like us. But they are not us."

Bennett of course was only carrying out policies set by Mayor Rahm Emanuel in consultation with Chicago's powerful (and largely white) Commercial Club which represents the city business and financial elite.

For Black Chicago, "underutilized" classrooms were a way to lower class size after generations of overcrowding. According to Black education activists any unused space in neighborhood schools could also be used for student enrichment activities, counseling services, adult education and community activities. In neighborhoods beset with disinvestment, unemployment and the attendant social problems, including high levels of personal violence, closing neighborhood schools was seen as just one more attack on African American educational opportunity.

As one African American education activist said to me in a discussion about school segregation in Chicago, "They just won't leave us alone."

It was in this context that McDaniel v. Board of Education was filed to stop the closings. Some of the major points raised by the lawsuit:

1. The Board of Education has deployed a variety of justifications to make the closings appear "race neutral" when in fact they are not.

2. Students from the closed school usually go to schools that are no better or sometimes worse academically, negating the claim that these closings are for education improvement.

3. Students go to schools that are mostly Black even when options to attend schools with white students are available, thus maintaining segregation.

4. Students will have to travel a longer distance to school, often across violent parts of the city where they will not have neighbors to look out for them and where they may encounter rival gangs and cliques, increasing the chances of possibly fatal bullying.

5. Many of the children live in extreme poverty or are homeless and closings have had a "negative and stigmatizing" effect upon them.

6. The closings have eliminated Local School Councils and removed an important vehicle for African American parents to have a voice in their schools.

7. Besides the racial segregation the closings add an economic segregation worse than older forms of segregation.

8. These closings interfere with children's learning and traps them in poverty while demoralizing already distressed communities.

9. The removal of community institutions like neighborhood schools are detrimental when trying to solve social problems like poverty and crime.

10. School closings in Black communities often coincide with white people moving in nearby and real estate prices rising, leading to gentrification and displacement.

11. A 2009 study by Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago, showed that the children displaced by such closings received no educational benefit to justify such closings.

12. The school closings will result in class sizes of 30 or above which have greater impact on the performance of low-income black children.

13. The school closings will result in more charter schools being opened which will not benefit African American children.

But why on earth, 60 years after the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision, and hundreds of other school desegregation cases later, do we still have segregated schools and vast racial inequities in education in the second decade of the 21st century?

The Troubled Legacy of the Brown Decision

The Brown v. Board of Education decision issued on May 17, 1954 made racial segregation in the schools unconstitutional. The decision was the culmination of a decades long battle by the NAACP to challenge the legal basis of segregation using 14th amendment's principle of equal protection under the laws.

The Brown decision was a direct slap at the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision declaring that racially separate but otherwise equal public facilities were legal. Handed down during a wave of lynchings and the adoption of harsh new segregation laws, Plessy v. Ferguson was a judicial fiction. No one seriously expected Black people to be granted racially segregated equal facilities. Who would enforce such a standard? With white supremacy on the rise, the police power of state and local governments could easily enforce the separate but ignore the requirement of the equal.

Brown recognized the fictional nature of Plessy v. Ferguson, but went much further, saying that legal segregation itself was inherently unequal even if the "physical and tangible factors" were equal. The Court was convinced that segregation generated among blacks "a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way that was unlikely to ever be undone."

However the Court failed to adequately address the flip side: how whites were affected by segregation. Segregation created a widespread false sense of racial superiority based on white economic and social privileges. That these privileges could be quite meager for impoverished whites did not make them any less real. Desegregation would not be easy given the deep racial divide that transcended lines of social class.

Thurgood Marshall, one of the NAACP lawyers who argued the case had this to say during the night of dancing and celebration at NAACP headquarters after the Brown case was won, "You fools go ahead and have your fun, but we ain't begun to work yet."

Massive Resistance to Brown

Brown was an enormous morale boost for the civil rights movement and helped ignite the next 10 years of sit-ins, freedom rides, and voter registration drives. After thousands of arrests and racist violence that cost both injuries and deaths, Congress passed civil rights laws that effectively ended formal segregation in the USA.

What Brown did not do was put an end to school segregation. According to veteran researcher Gary Orfield, co-director of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA, schools now are even more segregated than they were in the 1960s.

What went wrong?

The Supreme Court led by Chief Justice Earl Warren had announced a momentous decision on May 17, 1954, but then left enforcement details to the lower district courts who would issue desegregation orders to be obeyed with "...all deliberate speed." Some of these district judges were either segregationists themselves or had a lukewarm enthusiasm for desegregation. For them a snails pace was too fast for "all deliberate speed."

In the segregationist heartland of Dixie, public officials from governors on down defied the courts in an effort they called "massive resistance". A federal government that was visibly reluctant to enforce desegregation helped to stoke the segregationist fire.

President Eisenhower did send troops to Little Rock, AK in 1957 to allow 9 black students to enter Central High School and President Kennedy sent federal marshals to the University of Mississippi so James Meredith could enter there in 1962, but those were exceptional. Desegregation was met by repression, violence and official roadblocks as literally hundreds of desegregation cases had to be argued and then monitored for compliance.

There was progress toward desegregating American schools after Brown, but that was accompanied by considerable resegregation because of a problem that Brown could not solve: white flight.

White Flight and the Persistence of Segregation in the U.S.

The idea behind the Brown decision was that if Black and white students were in the same classroom that would deal with the racial disparities in funding and resources. There was also the hope that it would end racial animosity and expose the racial myths of white supremacy and black inferiority.

But what if white parents simply moved away into all-white enclaves? What if segregation was maintained within schools through tracking and standardized testing? Brown had answers for none of these. If de jure (legal) segregation was finally ended by court action, de facto (actual) segregation is still very much alive.

Massive resistance to desegregation was not just confined to the Old Confederacy. It was also a feature of northern cities as well, but it took a different form. Segregation in Northern cities solidified when large numbers of African Americans moved from the South after the First and Second World Wars and encountered traditional white hostility, aided by federal and city government policy.

African Americans were excluded from white neighborhoods through restrictive covenants, mob violence and terrorist attacks by nightriders, often with little protection by local authorities. Federal housing policy through the FHA favored racial segregation as federal highway programs contributed to the growth of segregated suburbs making it easier for whites to flee. These factors also contributed to the deterioration of older city neighborhoods.

For working-class whites, home ownership meant economic security and a source of inheritable family capital. Any threat to "property values" was met by resistance, often swift and violent as Blacks who tried to buy homes in white communities found out.

Many African Americans found themselves trapped in segregated areas attending segregated resource-starved schools. Widespread job discrimination kept Black incomes lower than white incomes, making home ownership outside of segregated neighborhoods a distant dream for many.

In 1964, the Supreme Court finally lost patience with "all deliberate speed" and imposed stricter standards which did hasten some school desegregation, but those successes often encouraged even more white flight. Northern cities (including Chicago) tried court-ordered busing for desegregation which was met by fierce resistance from whites and a growing skepticism from blacks. Why send Black children to white schools far from home so they could be attacked, bullied and confined to lower academic tracks?

In 1960s Chicago, there were huge protests and school boycotts against de facto segregation with its overcrowded and under-resourced schools in Black neighborhoods while schools in white neighborhoods were usually well-resourced and even "underutilized" (irony intended). Mayor Richard J. Daley made some minor conciliatory concessions, but the pattern of residential and school segregation remained solidly entrenched. Daley's many years in office were dedicated to maintaining racial segregation while simultaneously denying that segregation even existed.

In 1962, a federal judge dismissed a suit brought by 22 parents against Chicago school segregation on procedural grounds but did say:

[Segregation] deprives both the white and the Negro child of the rich experience of working together, learning from one another, and acquiring habits of good citizenship...It is painful to speculate on the amount of talent that the nation loses through failure to provide Negro children with sufficient opportunity and incentive to develop that talent.

By the 1970's the flight to the suburbs was accelerating. In Chicago the real estate industry made huge profits off of panic selling and "blockbusting" through racial fear. The joke was that an integrated neighborhood was one where the whites couldn't find a moving truck fast enough. A court-ordered desegregation consent decree could not stop the white flight and the white student population fell by nearly 75 percent from 1970-1990.

Nationally a substantial number of students did finally attend desegregated schools, especially in middle class areas, but the trend toward resegregation continued, especially for low-income people of color. Segregation also affected the USA's growing Latino population. In 1970 Mexican-Americans were finally included as a group that had been subjected to school segregation and they also entered into school desegregation litigation.

Racial Segregation and the Myth of a Colorblind Society

McDaniel v. Board of Education is a direct result of the inadequacy of Brown. White supremacy is so much a part of the U.S. political economy, that simply establishing formal equality before the law as Brown did, was not enough. Any illusions about that were shattered by white flight, resistance by local governments and a federal government that retreated from the goal of desegregation.

Brown also did not address the issue of social class which is also a major factor in educational inequities. Poverty and exploitation in the USA has traditionally been and continues to be, heavily racialized.

Brown could only establish a kind of colorblind equality before the law. It could not generate an equity of outcomes in education. Racial equity of outcomes would require a massive transformation of American capitalism. From its beginnings American capitalism has depended on racial division and racialized labor exploitation for its profitability and growth. Institutional racism is as much a part of American economy as the dollar sign.

The interests of wealthy white property owners have always been a greater priority than overcoming racial exploitation and division. When the American Republic was founded, the authors of the Constitution did little to disturb the "property rights" of wealthy white slave owners.

Today, we see the same deference to the wealthy mostly white property owners of industry and finance. They favor economic policies that maintain the racial caste system which feeds exploitation, poverty and their own profits. It is hard to imagine American-style capitalism even surviving without these racial divisions in the working class.

In Chicago, white flight and racialized poverty was intensified by the wholesale loss of industry

The deindustrialization that marked 1980s Chicago was followed by the modern neoliberal agenda of austerity, privatization and the remaking of cities as havens for the middle class. Investment went to downtown development and gentrification to "bring the middle class back to the city." This was understood to mean mostly affluent white people through displacement of low income minorities.

Deindustrialization and disinvestment hit African American and Latino neighborhoods particularly hard. Schools in low-income minority communities continued to be under-resourced as social problems intensified. Many lacked the most basic facilities and programs such as libraries, computer labs, physical education, music and art.

This also meant the growing privatization of public education and the closing of neighborhood schools through schemes like the Renaissance 2010 plan. Charters and turnaround schools proliferated in minority communities, draining resources from neighborhood schools and resulting in the loss of experienced (and often Black) teachers. Charters and turnarounds proved to be no panacea for segregated inequitable education. Curriculum shifted toward preparation for endless standardized tests rather than critical thinking, inquiry and more advanced subject material.

The turmoil in the schools along with the destabilization in minority communities resulted in an exodus from Chicago for 200,000 African Americans. Instead of raising wages and investing in Black neighborhoods to expand and strengthen the existing middle class, the Chicago elite preferred to import a mostly white one from elsewhere. The whole process was an ugly form of ethnic cleansing.

This helped set the stage for the "underutilization" crisis of 2012-2013 which resulted in the closing of 49 schools in mostly African American areas of the city and widespread community protests.

CPS is following the tradition of Plessy v. Ferguson by simply ignoring the gross racial inequities and repeating platitudes like, "We're trying to provide quality opportunities across the city," a statement recently made by CPS official Annette Gurley.

CPS is also following in the tradition of the segregationist "massive resistance" that followed the Brown decision: lies, evasion, delay and subterfuge to maintain racial and class discrimination. One example of a recent lie is when after weeks of almost unanimous opposition to school closings at public hearings attended by thousands of Chicagoans, Barbara Byrd Bennett said, "Everybody got it, that we really needed to close schools."

That was a lie that no one was actually supposed to believe. It was an assertion of her license to say the most outrageous things knowing she had the full backing of Chicago's most powerful political and business leaders. It was a display of naked political power against truth as if she were speaking for Big Brother in George Orwell's 1984.

By raising the issue of discrimination by social class as well as race, McDaniel v. Board of Education goes beyond Brown and begins to address equity of outcomes. But if Brown has taught us anything, it is that court decisions alone cannot substantially change the USA's entrenched racial caste system or our growing class inequities.

Brown helped ignite a civil rights movement that did make substantial changes in the racial caste system. If McDaniel v. Board of Education is successful, could it boost a social movement that addresses both class and race? At least on the local level?

Such a movement already exists in Chicago as demonstrated by the public support for the teachers strike, the massive opposition to school closings in all neighborhoods and the emerging low-wage workers movement typified by Fight for 15.

A favorable court decision could help boost the kind of radical multi-racial movement that Martin Luther King died trying to build. McDaniel is a direct challenge to the urban austerity agenda in which public funds go to the mostly white, wealthy and affluent instead of where they are needed. In a nation where racial inequality feeds class inequities, that could be a powerful challenge indeed. It may even begin to end school segregation.

Sherise McDaniel puts it this way:

It's going to take a lot of people of all colors, because now, it's turning into your socioeconomic status. Whether you're white, Black, Latino or whatever, if you're poor, they're going to walk all over you, and you're not going to have a say in your future--unless you get up there and make people aware. People have to join together to stand up, shout, climb on top of buildings and do whatever it takes to tell Rahm Emanuel: You leave my kids alone!"

First published at the Daily Kos.

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