Racism in Chicago


Last week I was glued to my phone and computer; riveted by the livestream and reading every live tweet from the Chicago school closings protest. The teachers, parents, students, and every human being that participated are heroes.


This racist policy to close the schools in Chicago is abhorrent, and it is coupled with the corporate agenda to privatize public education. As the Chicago Sun-Times reported:

Nine out of ten of the Chicago Public School students potentially affected by school closings this year are black…

Of those 129 schools located mostly on the South and West sides, 117 are majority black. And 119 of them have a percentage of black students higher than the district average. At the 129 schools on CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett’s list of schools that could be closed this year, 88 percent of the students are black. Schools with at least 90 percent black students account for 103 of the 129. Just nine are majority Hispanic.

The racial breakdown of the schools that could be closed is not in line with the overall demographics of the district. Across the city, 41.7 percent of CPS students are African American, 8.8 percent are white and 44.1 percent are Hispanic. The rest are Asian, Native American or members of other racial groups.

Despite Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s and CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennet’s denials that race played a factor in the school closings, the effects are extremely racist. Kenzo Shibata, social media coordinator of the Chicago Teachers Union, perfectly states:

People often recoil at the word racism. It is a term that is often erroneously conflated with “bigotry” and “prejudice.” One does not have to be a bigot to push racist policy. Racist policies are those that have a disparate negative impact on particular races. The term racism does not necessarily have anything to do with intention. It is about the effects.

Much of the media have reported that communities opposed to Rahm Emanuel’s school closing plan are accusing Mayor Emanuel of having racist intentions.

His intentions are immaterial. When the debate is made about one person’s intentions, it’s easily refutable. However, when we confront racism for what it really is, it sheds light on the structural issues that allow some races better opportunities than others.

Racism is nothing new in Chicago. On August 5, 1966, the Chicago Tribune reported:

On this muggy Friday afternoon, Martin Luther King Jr. stepped out of the car that had ferried him to Marquette Park on Chicago’s Southwest Side to lead a march of about 700 people. The civil-rights leader and his supporters were in the white ethnic enclave to protest housing segregation. Thousands of jeering, taunting whites had gathered. The mood was ominous. One placard read: “King would look good with a knife in his back.”

As King marched, someone hurled a stone. It struck King on the head. Stunned, he fell to one knee. He stayed on the ground for several seconds. As he rose, aides and bodyguards surrounded him to protect him from the rocks, bottles and firecrackers that rained down on the demonstrators. King was one of 30 people who were injured; the disturbance resulted in 40 arrests. He later explained why he put himself at risk: “I have to do this–to expose myself–to bring this hate into the open.” He had done that before, but Chicago was different. “I have seen many demonstrations in the South, but I have never seen anything so hostile and so hateful as I’ve seen here today,” he said.

King brought his protest movement north in 1966 to take on black urban problems, especially segregation. Chicago seemed like the perfect battleground.

As last week’s protest went on, a picture entered my twitter feed that gave me pause. A protestor had a sign saying “Rahm is a Rat.”

Rahm Emanuel is Jewish. I am agnostic, but coming from a Jewish family, my initial gut reaction was the sign is antisemitic. As more and more people on my twitter feed gave the picture a RT, I became more and more offended. I have so much respect and admiration for many of the people that sent out the picture, and in no way do I think they are bigots who had antisemitic intentions, but equating a Jewish person to a rat is antisemitic (if you haven’t read it, see Pulitzer Prize winner Art Spiegelman’s book/graphic novel The Complete Maus). Whether its overt, covert, or unintended; racism is racism.

It is vital for human beings to be inclusive, especially in groups defending human rights. Everybody should feel welcome and a part of any movement fighting for social justice. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said to Cesar Chavez: “Our separate struggles are really one. A struggle for freedom, for dignity, and for humanity.”

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