BY JACOB PAGANO
As a freshman at Amherst College in 2014, one of the most transformative courses I took was David Delaney’s “Race, Place, and the Law.” The seminar, cross-listed in LJST (Law, Jurisprudence, Social Thought) and Black Studies, considered how the formation of certain places, from neighborhoods to voting districts to police precincts, was not only impacted by race, but had themselves created distinctive racial geographies. Physical places such as these, Delaney argued, were never just localities. Rather, they were constructed by discriminatory policies, prejudices, and, equally important, attempts by activists and organizers to reclaim a sense of community and agency. A housing section in Bronzeville, Chicago, for example, is imbedded with histories of racial segregation. For many residents, the neighborhood also has other meanings—it is a place of shared community and history, what theorist G. Lipsitz calls the “black spatial imaginary.”
In a new study, Ghosts in The Schoolyard: Racism and School Closings on Chicago’s South Side (2018, University of Chicago Press), Eve L. Ewing, an assistant professor at the University of Chicago School of Service Administration, carefully examines one of the most disruptive, and racially-charged, changes to Chicago’s spatial geography in recent years: the closing of public schools in the South Side’s Bronzeville neighborhood and the resilient fight by community organizers, students, and activists to keep them open.
Ewing, a former schoolteacher in Bronzeville—a neighborhood which has historically been a center of black artistic and musical life (Gwendolyn Brooks, Sam Cooke, and Lou Rawls all were either were born or grew up there) —began this project in 2013, when Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced an unprecedented closure of nearly 330 Chicago schools. Emanuel and his appointed school chief, Barbara Byrd-Bennett, argued that closures were economically motivated, a fiscal response to “underutilized schools,” and had nothing to do with race.
Ewing emphatically contests that notion. “88 percent of the students who would be affected,” she points out in her introduction, were black, while “90 percent of the schools that would be closed were majority black.”
For Ewing, two questions immediately emerge from these statistics, and they frame the stakes of her project. First, she asks “What role did race, power, and history play in what was happening in [her] hometown?” Second, she poses a question that we might paraphrase as: Why, if the schools were underperforming, did parents and students launch campaigns to keep them open?
Working with a diverse set of methodological approaches—field observations, statistical analyses, interviews with community members, and the occasional reference to race theorists—Ewing begins to answer those questions by providing a comprehensive account of the history of housing and schooling in Chicago’s South Side, specifically in Bronzeville.
The short version of that history begins in the 1950s and ‘60s, when many of the schools that Emanuel proposed to close—such as Dyett High School and the William J. And Charles H. Mayo Elementary School—were first opened. Because of the Chicago Housing Authority’s racially-motivated building projects and draconian enforcement of restrictive covenants, Bronzeville was one of the few places black families could live. Racial makeup of the schools reflected that; schooling and housing became enmeshed in a “double-helix”-like relationship. Meanwhile, with the surge in immigration from the South to Chicago in post-War years, there were burgeoning numbers of students, and Dyett and Mayo were often at maximum capacity.
Such schools, as Chapter I (“What a School Means”) explores, quickly grew into more than just educational institutions, serving as the center of cultural and community life, preserving historical memory, and giving parents a true sense of empowerment in their children’s academic futures. Dyett High, for example, was named in 1972 after Walter Henri Dyett, a famous violinist and educator in Bronzeville, as an homage to a tradition of black excellence. The school became “a tacit way of celebrating community itself,” a “place of care, a home...its very existence... a testimony to the history of black education in Bronzeville.”
So when Chicago Public Schools (CPS) announced the closure of Dyett in 2013, and when parents received a letter saying that “Dyett has been chronically underperforming” and had too few students, community organizers immediately proclaimed moral outrage and quickly formed a Coalition to Revitalize Dyett. The school had long been a “stable institution” to the community, and parents believed that the only reason it was underperforming was because CPS itself had failed to provide adequate funding. And what was the reason for the drop in students? That was indeed a product of the racialized housing policy, which had concentrated a disproportionate number of black families in the area. By closing, rather than rehabilitating, the school, CPS seemed to participate in a long history of racial discrimination that restructured African-American spaces and institutions without the consent of residents.
Because Ewing has close connections with the community itself, and because she gained the trust of its organizers, she writes with an intimate narrative force, avoiding, as the Chicago aphorism goes, the opposition to outsiders and the sense that “we don’t want nobody sent by nobody.” Ewing is “somebody” in the community, and we hear directly from leaders and students in the resistance movements—which involved long negotiations and a hunger strike. When we learn that the movement achieved real success, the potential of community organizing resonates with strong emotional energy. Dyett closed as a high school in 2015, but re-opened in 2016 as Dyett High School For The Arts.
Other schools in Bronzeville, such as Overton, Williams, and Mayo, were less fortunate. All of them are now closed, and those who would have been students there face perilous educational futures. Many have to bus long distances to schools where, research suggests, they face difficult environments and often perform worse.
Ewing’s fourth chapter thus takes up the topic of “Institutional Mourning,” a neologism to convey the experience communities face during the “loss of a shared institution.” That kind of mourning, Ewing argues, occupies a special place is black communities; it participates in a long history of oral storytelling and testifying that refuses to let racist, authoritarian policies eradicate one’s narrative. Mourning is a way of remembering what once was, and what might be again.
Equal parts historical narration and intimate, journalist-style engagement with the people whose lives the closings affect, Ghosts closely builds upon recent work in critical race studies, revealing how ongoing histories and patterns of racism have intersected with, and impeded, both educational opportunities and civic power. In many ways, it is reminiscent of projects like Ta-Nehisi Coates’s seminal 2014 study in The Atlantic, “The Case for Reparations,” which traces the history of Chicago’s racialized housing policy and calculates the monetary loss it caused for black families. But where Coates is looking at concrete displacement, Ewing is considering something far more abstract: the value of an education and school in one’s own community.
It is both in her probing questions of what education means to socio-economically disadvantaged racialized communities and in her incisive challenge of political rhetoric that obfuscates or deflects from racial issues that Ewing offers us not only a site-specific study of Chicago, but one pertinent to broader questions of schooling in racialized worlds. “Across the country, at the highest levels of decision-making power,” Ewing writes, “we see education policies that value neoliberal ideologies over the lives of children—especially when the children are black.”
Her arguments throughout are hard to contest, crystallizations of both data and theories from the likes of George Lipsitz, Judith Butler, and Derrick Bell. The only area where Ghosts left me wanting further insight was in regards to the kinds of housing policies and models which might begin to supplant that employed by Chicago’s Public Schools.
If more community schools are to be kept open, for example, how can cities ensure that they thrive? How can such schools become more attractive to colleges and ensure that their students are receiving top educations without sacrificing their neighborhood or community value?
Ultimately, Ghost’s success lies in the fact that Ewing deftly and convincingly writes from myriad perspectives—as a teacher concerned for students, a researcher with an eye to statistics, and a Chicagonian devoted to bearing witness and testifying to injustice. Advocate and journalist, theorist and sociological observer, she thus creates a multi-dimensional portrait of the students and activist fighting in an ongoing struggle of injustice and resistance.
It deserves a spot on the bookshelf of any policymaker, activist, and certainly in the college classroom.
Jacob Pagano is a writer and reporter who graduated from Amherst College in 2018 with a degree in English. He has worked as an assistant producer for the In Contrast podcast at New England Public Radio, lived and reported in China, and written for publications including The Oxford Culture Review, The Oxford Review of Books, and The Mainichi Daily Newspapers. He also freelance writes on activism and social justice movements, and he currently has a Gregoy S. Call Fellowship from Amherst College to develop his thesis on James Baldwin into an article. He lives in Los Angeles and loves to travel.