Last night, I was happy to hear Chris Hayes report that the Buena Vista, Michigan, school district, which had been closed since May 7 with the intention of canceling classes for the rest of the school year, has reopened.
While it was good to see that these kids will indeed have classes for the remainder of the school year, I couldn’t help but hear this story and think about what’s happening with the school closings in Chicago. The city plans to move forward with the closing of fifty-four schools, despite protests from students, parents and the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU).
They differ greatly in size, but what Buena Vista and Chicago have in common is that the populations most affected by these school closings just happen to be mostly black. Buena Vista is home to just under 7,000 residents, 74 percent of whom are black. In Chicago, where black students make up about 40 percent of those enrolled, 88 percent of those who would be displaced by these school closings are black.
“Let’s not pretend that’s not racist,” CTU President Karen Lewis said at a rally back in March.
I was surprised her remark didn’t cause more of an uproar. I agree, what’s happening is racist, but, generally speaking, the public has a way of not calling racism by its name. We dance around the issue by noting the size of the black population, or using creative language like “racially charged,” but consider racist an accusation best left unspoken. And in part that has to do with what our conception of racism is. We don’t call this racist because no one was caught on tape saying the “n-word.” No one was secretly recorded saying black children are inherently inferior to white children and therefore undeserving of an education to begin with. There won’t be any Eyes on the Prize–style documentaries made of this moment featuring Mayor Rahm Emanuel pledging “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever” in a fiery speech. There are no ready-for-Disney fire-breathing racist demons on the scene who find joy in denying black children a proper education. It’s all so… boring.
But that’s how racism operates for the most part. It goes about its business as items on a budget while those in charge remain massively indifferent to the suffering of communities of color. And what was it but indifference when Michigan Governor Rick Snyder was refusing to release 0.1 percent of the state’s rainy-day funds in order to keep Buena Vista schools open? What else but indifference explains why Mayor Emanuel is open to using $125 million of taxpayer money to fund a basketball arena, but can’t find any money to help keep some of those schools from closing? Neither of these men has set out to deliberately destroy the educational opportunities of black students, so far as anyone can tell, but the point is they don’t have to. The effect of their indifference is the same racist result. All they have to do is not care.
As long as the education we need costs more than we are willing to invest there are going to be budget issues. But we don’t call it racism when the budget shortfalls wind up shortchanging people of color first and hardest, even though that’s what it is. And we’ll continue to live with this problem so long as we’re afraid to name it properly.
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