The Politics of Urban Education – Race

Growing up on the south side of Chicago, my siblings and I attended the same neighborhood public school as my parents. All of the students were African American. Most of my teachers were White and few were Black. My mother said that she did not trust the public school system to properly educate us. The school was plagued with disinvestment. My younger sister was an academically gifted child and without the options of sending her to a better school, my mother would visit our neighborhood school to inquire about a more rigorous curriculum and books in an effort to nurture my sister’s talent to no avail. Therefore, in addition to attending my local neighborhood school, my parents’ homeschooled me and my siblings. My dad would buy us books about civil right leaders. We had to read and give oral reports about them. Later when I asked my mother why she felt that it was necessary to homeschool us while sending us to public school, she replied almost in an apologetic manner, “The schools in the Gardens (the place where I lived) were not giving you what you needed to compete in the world.  I didn’t want you to be like me. I wanted you to have options.”

Just north of my home in Chicago was a suburban school district that had a reputation of being one of the best school districts in the country. In high school, we moved to the north suburbs. The difference in teaching and curriculum were immediately felt. Our high school counselor expressed surprise to my mother that we tested in our normal grade, noting that most students who transfer from Chicago had to be held back a year for failing to test at level. I have since been on a journey of inquiry and research to examine what policies contributed to my public school education.  As I studied the current state of inner-city schools and the policies that generate them, I noticed that the characteristics of these schools are reminiscent of the same characteristics of my public school education in Chicago 40 years prior.

In this article, I provide a historical background of Chicago’s restrictive housing policy and the subsequent development and maintenance of segregated schools. By exploring the tenets of critical race theory, I analyze how education policy is related to race by examining research in regards to the inferior education of African Americans and people of color in the United States. I use my personal experiences and auto ethnography to expound on how my education intersected with the policies and economics of the time. It is not the argument of this essay that discrimination ended with school integration, but that failing schools are the result of racial inequality in segregated schools and caused damage to Black students. Further, if policy makers and educators continue to ignore the historical evidence that current school failures are entrenched in a system of racial inequality, subsequent misguided policies that fail to include a civil rights component will support the continued educational detriment of African American and children of color.

This is a disturbing thing. I have been in many demonstrations all across the south, but I have never seen even in Mississippi and Alabama, as hostile and hate filled, as I have seen in Chicago. —Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

The literature focusing on housing and public school education in Chicago shows a legacy of racism and segregation that was pervasive not just when I was in school in the ‘70s and ‘80s, but throughout the entire 20th century. A significant number of studies document the genesis and growth of unequal conditions for predominantly African American communities in both in detail.

Chicago’s African-American Population

To comprehend my experience in the Chicago Public School system in the years between of 1974 to 1989, the reader must grasp the historical significance of Chicago’s restrictive housing policy.  The 1896 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Plessy v Ferguson explicitly approved segregation by government via a policy that schools and housing could be “separate but equal.The Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. The Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas dismantled Plessy and was the major impetus for legislation supporting educational equity. Despite legislation, as the Black population expanded pre-World War I, the City of Chicago enforced a restrictive housing policy to maintain segregation of Blacks and Whites, noting that the “unions control Chicago school board.” By 1917, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down local ordinances regarding housing.  Regardless, in the 1920s, most of Chicago’s Black population resided in a concentrated part of the city – a span of 30 blocks known as the Black Belt. Later, due to massive Black migration from the South in the 1940s, the Black population grew in Chicago to account for a quarter of the city’s whole population. Consequently, it posed a threat to White resident communities.

Housing, Segregation, and Covenant Agreements

As the Black population from the South continued to migrate to Chicago, the Chicago School Board changed boundary lines to preserve segregation of school districts. This was not an isolated occurrence. During the Depression era, both federal housing and local officials adopted and enforced racial practices. For example, covenants were written in property deeds that restricted sales of property to Blacks and other minorities.  Although the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed racial zoning in 1917, at the same time it authorized court enforcement of the covenant agreements.

Harvard professor, Gary Orfield, provided a historical account of federal government agencies’ policies openly supporting housing segregation. Orfield concluded, “The entire system of housing segregation was one of government sponsored segregation and a denial of even ‘separate but equal’ opportunity for minority families.” Orfield’s claim is supported by Clements E. Vose, who specifies a description of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s (NAACP) legal campaign against covenant agreement. Additionally, the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders’ report implicated all levels of government in supporting housing segregation.

With the federal government supporting segregation, this practice imposed a pattern of extreme segregation on Blacks in Chicago.  Allan H. Spears found that:

The development of the physical ghetto…was not the result chiefly of poverty; nor did Negroes cluster out of choice.  The ghetto was primarily the product of white hostility.… As Chicago’s Negro population grew, Negroes had no alternative but to settle in well-delineated Negro areas.  And with increasing pressure for Negro housing, property owners in the black belt found it profitable to force out white tenants and convert previously mixed blocks into all-Negro blocks.

The Federal Housing Authority (FHA) contributed to the housing segregation policies in Chicago by refusing to insure projects that had “inharmonious racial groups.” In addition, Black families were priced out of the private housing market. Another racist practice used in Chicago was redlining. Local real-estate agencies would literally use a red pen and outline on a map where financing for housing and further investments were withheld.  In his book, Must We Bus,  Orfield wrote an analysis of desegregation of the five largest cities: New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Detroit. He stated, “Chicago has the most segregated school system of any of the five cities. Mass mobilization against segregation came relatively late, but at its peak the struggle had a cast of characters and a sense of confrontation that were probably unsurpassed.” The housing segregation policies in Chicago that pre-dated World War I and continued into the 1980s contributed significantly to the development of school segregation in Chicago. Moreover, they were difficult to overturn because they were supported by the policies of the federal government.

Overcrowded and Underfunded Schools

Black schools remained overcrowded and grossly underfunded. A 1961 research investigation by the Chicago Urban League analyzed the expenditures of individual schools and found “established beyond question that segregated Negro schools were actually getting less in school funds per child than those in more prosperous white areas.” Additionally, in 1961 the typical Black school averaged more than 42 students per classroom compared to White schools, which averaged 32 students per classroom. The school board addressed the problem of overcrowded schools by enacting more segregation-related school policies. First, they implemented double shifts in Black schools and announced a dubious transfer plan that prohibited Black students from transferring to White schools unless strict guidelines were met. Although other major cities employed busing to relieve overcrowded schools, the Chicago School Board thought it was expensive and did not implement busing. Mobile classrooms were also used to relieve overcrowded classrooms. New schools were built, but were also more segregated.  More unconvincing federal mandates were issued to integrate schools, but the school board did not make sincere efforts to integrate schools.

In the 1970s, White flight began as many White residents of Chicago moved to the suburbs to avoid integration. Thus, a pattern developed in major cities: urban schools were comprised mostly of middle to low-class African American and Hispanic students, in contrast to the suburbs, which were comprised of middle-class White students. Orfield writes:

Inner city children experienced a far lower level of competition and far less stimulation than their equally talented and motivated suburban counterparts.  The same relationships among race, common wealth, and achievement hold in other large urban communities, suggest that these relationships are systematic and structural.

Thus segregation was maintained in the latter half of the 20th century, even as new communities were being established, and the underfunding of schools in minority communities was allowed to continue.

Symbolic Subordination and Material Subordination (racism defined)

Racism is defined in this article by two definitions. “Symbolic subordination refers to the denial of social and political equality to all Blacks, regardless of their accomplishments…. Jim Crow segregation was one manifestation of symbolic subordination. “Material subordination” on other hand, refers to the ways that discrimination and exclusion economically subordinates Blacks to Whites on almost all levels.” The continual segregation of schools puts African American children and educators in a subordinate position to Whites.

Critical Race Theory (racial idealist versus racial realist)

To further explore the subordinate position of African Americans, I employ Critical Race Theory (CRT), which focuses on (a) the effects of racism, (b) its victim, and (c) the offenders while exploring ways to bring social justice to marginalized people. Two of the basic premises of CRT are that: (1) “racism is a permanent component of American life;” and (2) “permanence of racism indicates that racist hierarchical structures govern all political, economic, and social domain including education.” Another approach to CRT is that there are two modes of thought about. The first is described as “idealist” racism. It is the idea that “racism and discrimination are matters of thinking, attitudes, categorization, and discourse.” In the idealist approach, some CRT scholars believe that once stereotypes and name calling are removed from society, then the American social consciousness will change about African Americans and other minorities. The other mode of thought is called “racial realist.” This approach argues that while attitudes and thinking are acts of racism. The “realist views racism as a means by which society [systematically] allocates privilege, status, and wealth.” The “racial realist” focuses on the material factors of how racism creates African Americans as a subgroup.

The latter view of “racial realist” is the view that this article examines. Research has illustrated that housing segregation in Chicago did not occur naturally. It was created and maintained by the public school system. Careful planning, preparation, and implementation of school policies were intentionally put into operation by the public school system maintained racial segregation, which lead to unequal education of African American students. “Material subordination” is a key component of structural racism. It is this “mechanism” of housing segregation that continues to distract attention away from racial subordination, while at the same time justifies continuing inequity by failing to acknowledge the mechanisms, such as housing segregation, that maintain ongoing material subordination. “Some argue that poor children, regardless of race, do worse in school, and that the high proportion of African American poor contributed to their dismal school performance. I believe that the cause of their poverty combined with the condition of their schools and schooling is institutional and structural racism.” Crenshaw clarifies that while race appears to be neutral, the system creates the illusion that racism is no longer the primary factor responsible for the Black underclass. Instead, the disparities in the Black class are consequences of individual and group merit in a supposedly equal system.  The public school system continued a system of segregation to maintain an unequal education system. This system deprived African Americans of better jobs and provided them with higher-priced housing. Even today, a recent Chicago Tribune study revealed that low scoring teachers are concentrated in high poverty areas.

In talking with my mother, she said that my father “was bitter because of his unfair treatment at Washburn Trade School [previously part of the public school].” My father was a carpenter and attended Washburne’s cabinet making program. This “material subordination” was the cause of my father’s bitterness. More clearly, despite his merit and talent as an African American individual, he found himself in a subordinate position against Whites, initiated by an unequal educational system. Instructors blatantly refused to teach certain procedures, particularly safety, to African American students. They had to learn by accident, some causing harm, how to use certain equipment.

The public school policy not only segregated Black students from White students, thus providing an unequal education, but it also intentionally discriminated against Black administrators and Black teachers. Since post-World War I the Chicago public school system employed few Black teachers and administrators. My mother said that during her attendance at Carver Elementary and High School from 1955-1969, she had few Black teachers.  She further said that she couldn’t “ever recall having a Black principal.”

Currently, there continues to be great disparities in the education of Black, other minority, and White students. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), Black students continue to fall behind White students in academics. Inner city children experienced a far lower level of competition and far less stimulation than their equally talented and motivated suburban counterparts.  “The same relationships among race, common wealth, and achievement hold in other large urban communities, suggest that these relationships are systematic and structural.”

Choice and Failure

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 set a time limit on states to integrate or have federal funds withheld. Prior legislation merely required states to form an integration plan, but states merely found loopholes, such as White transfer and public school closings, in an effort to avoid school integration, so choice historically was related to segregation.

Most Americans think that choice is a basic human right that holds true for all Americans. Yet, as Orfield points out, students are assigned to a public school and are not given the option to choose one of the best options available. Thus, mostly non-White children are locked into failing schools. Public education was not intended to serve the individual child, but the community of the child.   Parents who refuse to send their children to school are committing a crime. My mother defied the school system by homeschooling us while we attended public school. For a brief time of financial success, she enrolled me and my siblings in parochial school.  Her resistance saved me.

Gary Orfield’s work is valuable because his research on segregated schools, national policies, and the reversal of Brown v. Board of Education have been brought together with his most recent research  regarding school choice and civil rights. The reversal of Brown v. Board of Education has created the same problems for African Americans that existed for me 40 years ago. These changes are most noticeable in choice policies.

Sociologist Kathryn M. Neckerman analyzed the educational experiences of African Americans in Chicago and their subsequent status in American society.  At the turn of the century, schools in Chicago were not racially segregated though racial tension was present.  In 1917, only 41 Black teachers were employed out of 8,000.  The first Black principal was not selected until 1927. Furthermore, high school students had racial encounters.  By further analysis, in the African American and White-immigrant communities in Chicago circa 1930-1947 education was tied to class distinction within the community in relation to White society. Yet, unlike White immigrants, Black elites were banded from assimilation.

Social and Political Ideologies

There are strong opposing views regarding failing schools. The charter school movement and the advocates who support it have ideologies that contend that failing schools are related to factors related to teachers unions and can be improved in a market of choice. Bill Gates donated significant sums of money to this cause. The Blue Print for Reform the Reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 2010 was written by President Obama and the Secretary of Education. This federal document supports charter schools and was an appeal for the country to take an active role to equally educate all children.  Nonetheless, charter schools have not shown significant improvement in student performance.  The research of William Watkins and Pauline Lipman highlight the charter school movement and how African Americans and other people of color have been disenfranchised by powerful politics and corporate funds in the name of equality.

Disputes related to student achievement, segregation, re-segregation, and choice are shaping history. Moreover, education policies are developed from ideologies of powerful people. Unfortunately, a key component is missing in the ideology of these policy makers: the experience of someone who were educated under a racially motivated system of inequality.  If policy makers and educators continue to ignore the historical evidence that current school failures are entrenched in a system of racial inequality, subsequent misguided policies that fail to include a civil rights component will support the continued educational detriment of African American and other children of color.

This is an excerpt from Mrs. Jones’ dissertation. It will be presented for defense in 2019.

Raymellia Jones
Raymellia Jones is an educator who has taught for over 15 years in the Chicago area, including CPS, charter, and private schools. She is a reading and language arts specialist. She has a Masters in Elementary Education and is currently finishing doctorate dissertation on critical race theory in urban schools.