Rahm Emmanuel Doesn’t Care About Black People

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In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Kanye West agreed to do a telethon for the American Red Cross to raise money for relief efforts.  Water was still in the streets of New Orleans, and black bodies were in the water, on rooftops, in rowboats.  The human scale of the tragedy was just coming into focus, and in the moment, Kanye was overtaken with despair.  Onscreen with Mike Myers, he started speaking from the heart rather than the teleprompter.  After Myers gives an earnest pitch for support, West lets loose with the only explanation he can think of for the lack of attention to this tragedy: “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.”

West spoke what many of us at the time couldn’t put into words.  How in 21st century America could we have a catastrophe so racialized, so devastating, and so ignored by those whose job it is to step in and help?  What other explanation could there possibly be?

I had a Kanye West moment this afternoon in hearing that Chicago Public Schools had released a list of 61 schools to be closed, overwhelmingly in majority-black neighborhoods.  I stood in utter disbelief at a man-made soon-to-be-disaster, where the government turned a blind eye to the consequences for the children involved.

Having followed school reform in Chicago closely for more than a decade, I’ve seen school CEO’s doing all manner of logical contortions to justify school destruction. None of those seem to apply here.

Let’s start with the official reason – budget deficits.  It would seem to me that if you’ve got budget problems, getting rid of schools would be the absolute last-ditch effort because of the turmoil it inflicts in kids lives.  Surely there must be other ways to find the money.  Raid dormant TIF funds?  Take a year off from Taste of Chicago and fireworks at Navy Pier?  Cut back on street cleaning?  Raise property taxes?  No mention of any alternative.  This was instead a convenient moment for the administration to move an agenda.

So what’s the agenda?  In the past, it was clear.  Renaissance 2010, the last big school reform plan, had as its goal to close 60 underperforming schools and replace them with 100 new schools, many of them charters, that would supposedly better serve the children.  Here the agenda was misguided, but clear – to strengthen the environment for charters and other school experiments.  Tellingly, studies of the results to date have yet to show Renaissance Schools performing any better than the schools they replaced.  (Some studies listed here). 

The burden of Renaissance 2010 also fell disproportionately on black schools, which was exacerbated in early years by coordinating school closings with public housing closings as part of the Chicago Housing Authority’s “Plan for Transformation.”  The logic was that the new neighborhood residents (white and upper-income black) would send their kids to the new schools once the majority of poor blacks had been relocated out of the neighborhood.

As dubious as Renaissance 2010 was, the current plan doesn’t even pretend that the schools will be replaced.  CPS is moving to make 30 students per class the standard of school efficiency, undoing previous attempts to shrink class sizes to allow for more individualized student attention.  Students will travel farther to school, often crossing gang boundaries that put them physically in harm’s way.  There are real consequences to this – Chicagoans may remember the killing of Derrion Albert, beaten to death with railroad ties by young men from his high school who came from a rival neighborhood.  A series of nearby school closings put these students under the same roof, and not even the resources that accrued to Fenger High School as a “turnaround school” could stop the killing.

So what does that leave us?  Larger class sizes.  More dangerous schools.  Disruption of student and community lives.  And all this predicated on the assumption that we can get better results from schools in urban communities by spending less on them?

My mind gropes for the only piece of logic I can find: Rahm Emmanuel doesn’t care about black people.

Kanye West eventually went on Nightline and clarified his remarks, and I think the clarification applies to Emmanuel as well.  “I have a hard time believing that George Bush cares about anyone.  So, sidebar, black people also.”