In 2013, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced a massive wave of school closings, mostly on the city’s South Side, citing poor performance, under-enrollment or both.
Parents protested, concerned for the safety of their children, many of whom would now have to deal with the threat of gang violence on their way to and from their new schools.
They were also dismayed that the most important and visible anchors of their neighborhoods were being shuttered.
In her new book Ghosts In The Schoolyard: Racism And School Closings On Chicago’s South Side, sociologist and writer Eve Ewing deconstructs what happened in local communities when those 50 public schools abruptly closed.
Morning Shift guest host Kyra Kyles talks with Ewing about the families she interviewed and the overall impact of the school closures on largely black and brown communities.
GUEST: Eve Ewing, writer, poet, sociologist of education at the University of Chicago
What inspired Ghosts in the Schoolyard?
Eve Ewing: In 2013, I was a graduate student, and I had previously taught in Chicago at a CPS school. I was doing graduate study, and I found out that the school closures were happening. It was a really tumultuous time for Chicagoans, very contentious. And I saw that the school where I taught was on the closure list, it was going to be closed. And I felt a disconnect between the way I saw these schools being talked about in the media and my own recollection, and my own understanding of my school, and so I set out to try to understand: Why is this really happening, and what’s the story behind the story?
Kyra Kyles: I’m not really sure that many people, at least publicly, connected the dots between public housing and its eventual demise, and the shuttering of [public] schools. Can you connect those for us?
Ewing: As you know, the school closures were really concentrated on the South Side and also on the West Side, but I focus in the book on Bronzeville for a number of reasons. Number one, it’s where I taught, so it has a personal connection for me. And number two, Bronzeville had seen a wave of school closures, but number three, I saw a pretty obvious connection between the Plan for Transformation, which, as we know, was the demolition of 22,000 units of public housing overseen by Richard M. Daley, and the fact that schools had much lower enrollment. So it felt very silly to me to have a public conversation where everyone knew that the Robert Taylor Homes and Stateway Gardens and all these high-rise public housing residences had been there not that long ago, and so it felt a little bit like the emperor’s new clothes to me.
What makes a school-closing policy racist?
Ewing: [Former CEO of Chicago Public Schools] Barbara Byrd Bennett’s way of understanding and conceptualizing racism was that this is about what’s in your heart, this is about your personal intentions. Very individual, right? We are not saying that we’re setting out to harm children. Versus the way Karen Lewis [former head of the Chicago Teachers Union] and many activists and many community folks, as well as the way many activists and many social scientists, we understand racism as about structure and about impact. So it actually has nothing to do with your intentions, but rather: Does this policy disproportionately harm some people at the expense of others? And when you think about it that way, then it becomes pretty difficult to ignore the history, and I also think that in Chicago we need some truth and some reconciliation. We need to do a better job of really talking about the ways that race and segregation and racism have shaped the history of our city so that we can make better decisions for the future.
Comparing school closings to family separations
Ewing: That comparison actually came directly from a principal who was speaking at a school closure meeting, and she was a black woman, and she stood up and said, “I feel like I’m at a slave auction right now.” And that was very jarring for me as well, but it was striking how many times during these closure meetings children and teachers used the language of family separation, and children would say things like, “I feel like the teachers are my mom,” “I feel like the other students are my cousins and my brothers and sisters.” They also talked about biological familial connections. In some of these schools these were families that had been attending…
Kyles: Like legacies.
Ewing: Legacies that had been attending the same school for multiple generations. And students would say things like, “My grandma went to this school.” “My aunties went to this school.” “I am known and seen. I am a known entity here.” Right? Teachers can come up and say, “I taught your auntie,” or “You’re just like your uncle.” And that was very powerful. And I think that obviously there are many important distinctions between this kind of separation and chattel slavery, but I do think it’s important to think about, for black children, what it means to take them away from situations of stability, where they have deep, meaningful bonds with the adults and the other children in their lives.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Click the “play” button to listen to the entire conversation, which was adapted for the web by Char Daston.
LEARN MORE: Ghosts In The Schoolyard (Eve Ewing personal website)
Eve Ewing Blasts From Chicago To Space, With A Boost From Marvel (New York Times 10/21/18)
WFMT And The Studs Terkel Radio Archive To Launch New Podcast ‘Bughouse Square With Eve Ewing’ (Broadway World 10/2/18)