Op-Ed: Chicago’s Low-Income Families Are Sick of Feeling Disposable

Professor David Stovall feels the school closures are just another way to marginalize the city’s poorest communities.

On March 27, more than 1,000 demonstrators held a rally and marched through downtown Chicago to protest a plan by the city to close more than 50 elementary schools, claiming it is necessary to rein in a looming $1 billion budget deficit. The closings would shift about 30,000 students to new schools and leave more than 1,000 teachers with uncertain futures. (Photo: Getty Images)

Mar 28, 2013

On the afternoon of March 27, thousands of families, teachers, community members, school leaders and concerned residents of Chicago descended on Daley Plaza to protest the closing of 54 public schools.

These 54 are over three times the amount of schools Chicago Public Schools (CPS) has closed in a calendar year (before, the largest number was 17). These closings should be understood not only as a tired excuse by CPS to address budget shortfalls, but part and parcel of a larger project that involves the mass disinvestment, displacement, and state-sanctioned disposability of low-income African-American and Latino/a communities. 

As such, it defeats the purpose of this article to go in depth into some tired conspiracy theory. Instead, it behooves us to understand the attempt to close schools as manufactured conflict by way of a business plan (formerly Renaissance 2010) championed by major corporations (through philanthropic interests) deeming urban education as cost-ineffective and in need of a “makeover.” 

The major problem with this view is that to make schools “cost-effective,” competitive, and efficient, there has to be “winners” and “losers.”  According to CPS, the losers continue to be from groups that have been historically marginalized and isolated.

Currently 51 of the 54 closing schools are in African-American communities classified as “low income.” Many of these communities have experienced mass depletion of resources and infrastructure while funds have been reallocated to revitalization projects aimed in making Chicago a “global city.” 

As schools are closed, express bus lanes, multimillion art projects, and tourism campaigns are allocated to the central business district. Simultaneously, garbage services and road maintenance have been reduced in the areas where schools are being closed. The maintenance of parking meters have been privatized, while the city is still able to secure a revenue stream through the collection of fees for parking tickets, making the city even less accessible for low-income families. From this type of disinvestment, the city has deemed its outskirts to be a non-desirable periphery that is solely designated for those who will be relegated with minimal access to the aforementioned areas.

Deepening the concept of the disposability of low-income families, CPS has hired Tom Tyrrell, a former Marine colonel whose claim to fame is his success with hostage negotiation in the Kosovo conflict in the mid-1990s. For me this begs a particular question: If the city is equating its low-income communities to war-torn countries, what does it say about the residents of these areas? Are they refugees? Prisoners of war? Enemy combatants? If so, what policies do you put in place for this group of young people?

Unfortunately, in a hyper-segregated city like Chicago with marginalized communities experiencing chronic disinvestment, structural poverty, and food insecurity, the answer is chilling. The city has deemed that jail is the most viable place for these young people. As the eye is currently on Chicago in reference to youth violence, few critiques have posited the current wave of violence as indicative of chronic disinvestment, structural poverty, and food insecurity.

At this moment, crime-fighting strategies are focused on “getting bad guys off the street” without a systemic understanding of the aforementioned concerns as central to youth violence. 

The closure of 54 schools has the greatest potential to increase violence in our communities. One of the consequences of hyper-segregation via local residential policies is that communities don’t know each other. As a historical consequence, tensions are “manufactured” when communities resort to protectionism.

Contrary to popular belief, this is not inherent to Black and Latino/a communities. Instead, this can happen in affluent homogenous suburbs. In an environment where individuals are stressed due to lack of infrastructure and basic services, this becomes a perfect storm for conflict.

Deeper police presence will not address these issues in the long-term. More importantly, high mobility rates in education has the potential to make the learning experience of young people even more stressful as they have to adapt to new school cultures.

At the same time I remain thankful for those who have dedicated head, heart, and soul to the fight. My prayer is that the march serves as another reminder to the powers that be that we will not take this lying down. The fight will be long and bloody, but we believe in the necessity of our struggle!   

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