Chicago Public School Closings Whitewash History

People often recoil at the word racism. It is a term that is often erroneously conflated with “bigotry” and “prejudice.” One does not have to be a bigot to push racist policy. Racist policies are those that have a disparate negative impact on particular races. The term racism does not necessarily have anything to do with intention. It is about the effects.

Much of the media have reported that communities opposed to Rahm Emanuel’s school closing plan are accusing Mayor Emanuel of having racist intentions.

His intentions are immaterial. When the debate is made about one person’s intentions, it’s easily refutable. However, when we confront racism for what it really is, it sheds light on the structural issues that allow some races better opportunities than others.

The Chicago Sun-Times looked at Chicago Public Schools’ drive to close schools and found that,

Nine out of ten of the Chicago Public School students potentially affected by school closings this year are black, a Chicago Sun-Times analysis has found, a discovery one community activist called a “lawsuit waiting to happen.”

Of those 129 schools located mostly on the South and West sides, 117 are majority black. And 119 of them have a percentage of black students higher than thedistrict average. At the 129 schools on CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett’s list of schools that could be closed this year, 88 percent of the students are black.

Schools with at least 90 percent black students account for 103 of the 129. Just nine are majority Hispanic.

If your school is closing, there’s an 88% chance that you are Black.

That makes the policy racist, regardless of the intentions of its advocates.

Many of these schools have been named after Black historical figures. As we lose schools named after strong Black figures, we gain more schools named after white socialites.

The Noble Street Charter School network is an operation that Mayor Rahm Emanuel admires so much that he appeared in a Tea Party-produced video giving it his seal of approval. Noble Schools have opened a number of new charters named after living, white billionaires like Penny Pritzker and Bruce Rauner.

Craig Allen Cleve, a Chicago Public Schools teacher from Columbia Explorers Academy thought about these issues and penned this essay about the loss of Black historical figures as school namesakes.

CPS Kicks Black History to the Curb

by Craig Allen Cleve

Mary McLeod Bethune lived long ago and spent most her her life far from Chicago.  She was born in the Jim Crow South in 1875 – the fifteenth child of former slaves – but she overcame her poverty and geographic disadvantages to become a leading figure in education, women’s rights, and the early Civil Rights Movement.

In the first decade of the twentieth  century, Bethune founded a college for poor, African-American women in Daytona, Florida, which she presided over for four decades.  She was an outspoken voice against lynching.  In the 1930’s, she founded the National Council of Negro Women.  She even became a frequent advisor to President Franklin Roosevelt, and was successful at getting African-American young people to be included in the New Deal’s National Youth Administration (NYA).

Bethune was an institution in the early days of the Civil Rights movement.  Now, an institution which bears her name, is in danger of suffering one final act of humiliation.  Mary McLeod Bethune Elementary School, located at 3030 W. Arthington St., is one of 61 school buildings scheduled to be closed at the end of the current school year.

Located in an all-black community between Douglas Park and the Eisenhower Expressway, Bethune stands testimony to the troubling fact that 80% of all schools slated for closure are located in African-American neighborhoods, serving among the poorest of Chicago poor.

It is ironic that a school named for a strong, African-American woman who advocated for education among her people should be shuttered under circumstances that for many Chicagoans stir memories of the Jim Crow-ism and de facto segregation of a previous generation.

But Bethune is not alone. The list of Chicago Public Schools scheduled to close on the South and West sides reads like a classroom word wall during Black History Month:

Louis Armstrong was the most innovative contributor to American jazz music.

Crispus Attucks was killed at the Boston Massacre.

Benjamin Banneker and Garret A. Morgan were inventors.

Jesse Owens was a four-time Olympic gold medalist;

Arna Wendell Bontemps was a Harlem Rennaissance poet;

Matthew Henson was a Polar explorer;

Marcus Garvey founded the Black Nationalism movement.

Mahalia Jackson was the queen of gospel music.

Robert Henry Lawrence was the first black astronaut.

All are African-American role models for whom Chicago Public Schools were named.  All of them are currently slated to close at the end of the current school year.

It begs the question:  Where do African-American children go for inspiration, when the institutions bearing the names of such eminent individuals are eradicated?  When these schools opened, they were touchstones of possibilitiy and promise.  Like churches, schools are omnipresent symbols of safety and hope.  Many have fallen into disrepair, the result of a decade’s worth of financial neglect on the part of CPS.  And when they go –  if they go – they may take the heart of their communities with them.

CPS argues that the list of closings is completely unbiased.  After all, they are also closing Betsy Ross Elementary and Francis Scott Key Elementary. In CPS’s version of America, symbols are window dressing.  Money talks.

My appearance on the Matthew Filipowicz Show discussing school closings. 

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