Harvard Educational Review
  1. Ghosts in the Schoolyard

    Racism and School Closings on Chicago’s South Side

    Eve L. Ewing

    Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018. 240 pp. $22.50 (cloth).

    Within sociology, ethnographers are sometimes considered foot soldiers of the discipline. The trained ethnographer enters a community, often one that is not their own, in an effort to expand our knowledge of the social world through an in-depth study of culture. A good ethnography offers a revealing glimpse into a social system, an understanding of everyday actors and insights into how everyday actions, interactions, and events are patterned by culture and structure. A great ethnography goes beyond this by advancing theory and uncovering hidden truths about the social world. Author Eve L. Ewing’s Ghosts in the Schoolyard: Racism and School Closings on Chicago’s South Side surpasses both of these measures, elevating the ethnographic project to the status of art, even as the polymathic author may shy away from identifying with any one methodological tradition. Within the first few pages, readers are not only intellectually rooted in the events surrounding school closures on Chicago’s South Side, but are fully immersed in the scenes of a strange paradoxical world where it is the year 2013 in one of the richest countries in the world, and the only way to improve a school is to close it. Writing with equal parts intellectual rigor, élan, and moral clarity, Ewing offers a forceful reexamination of the prevailing logic that governs school closings in majority black neighborhoods while also inviting the reader to consider a “dueling reality,” another version of events as seen from the perspectives of those most impacted by Chicago’s school closures.

    Debates on public school closures are unfolding in urban school districts across the United States, where proposed closures disproportionately affect communities of color. Ghosts in the Schoolyard, even though it’s set in a single neighborhood in Chicago, adds a timely new perspective to an ongoing national debate. In the first few pages, readers are swept into the dominant narrative on school closure: schools in majority black neighborhoods should be shuttered because, in the parlance of district officials, they are “bad schools,” they are “the worst in the nation,” and, ultimately, they are “irredeemable.” According to Ewing, this narrative is persuasive because it conforms to two powerful cultural scripts: first, the neoliberal discourse that has engulfed public policy in the United States insists that the relationship between urban schools and educational quality can be discerned by last year’s test scores; and second, the view that emerges from this measure fits comfortably within familiar frames of reference that pathologize black communities. And yet, by the end of the introduction, Ewing forces readers to grapple with the obvious question, If these schools are so bad, then why do people fight to keep them open?

    Through observations of Chicago Public School proceedings, interviews with community members, and analyses of documents collected in 2015–2016, Ewing focuses her efforts on answering this central question. She argues that in order to understand why a community would fight to save a “failing” school, it is necessary to put current events in broader perspective and consider how race, power, and history give rise to the current moment. In turn, she interrogates each of these dimensions throughout the book’s four primary chapters.

    In the first half of the book, Ewing moves freely between contemporary events and historical precedent. Readers learn about the magnitude and significance of the 2013 school closures in Chicago, when the nation’s third-largest school system announced plans to close fifty-four public schools, 87 percent of which were majority black schools. Though these plans were ostensibly designed to enhance educational opportunity for the students district leaders believed were “trapped” in underresourced schools, readers come to appreciate these events from the perspective of the students, teachers, and community members affected by the closings. In these chapters, readers bear witness as Ewing documents the history of redlining and restrictive covenants in Chicago that gave birth to a segregated and unequal school system and see how decades of discriminatory housing policy have undermined public schools in majority black communities.

    In presenting a carefully researched history of Chicago public policy, Ewing takes a long view and invites readers to look beyond a one-dimensional rhetoric on school failure to understand the debate on school quality on different terms. Echoing Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot’s The Good High School: Portraits of Character and Culture (1983), Ewing juxtaposes a history of discrimination and struggle alongside a history of resilience, relationships, and community. Readers hear the voices of students who view school as an extension of family, and the voices of parents and teachers who take pride in the rich cultural legacies of their schools and view closure as an effort to erase that legacy. In these early chapters, Ewing is perhaps at her best as she sets community testimony on equal footing with official rhetoric on school closings, illuminating how a seemingly open-and-shut case on school quality and accountability demands a closer look at a much longer history of discriminatory social policies engineered to subordinate Chicago’s black community.

    In the second half of the book, Ewing explains how the Chicago Public School closures can be viewed in terms of two separate realities that frame the debate. At one end of the spectrum, powerful actors take an ahistorical view and summon the technocratic tools of “pseudoscientific analysis” (p. 159) to dismantle majority black schools on the basis of a blinkered set of facts about school quality and educational opportunity. At the other end of the spectrum, residents see the events as part of a broader pattern of disrespect and disregard for black lives and the fight to save neighborhood schools as part of an ongoing fight for dignity and self-determination. As Ewing explains, these two “divergent testimonies are more than just differences of opinion—they reflect different realities located on opposite sides of a racially and socioeconomically segregated world” (pp. 115–116). Along the way, she explains how these “dueling realities” are the byproduct of racism, neoliberalism, and structural violence—sociological theories that bring power and race to the fore when surfacing the causes of inequality—and puts forth her own theory of institutional mourning as a way of conceptualizing how the resultant school closures affect marginalized communities. She argues that when power-marginalized communities have limited opportunity for economic mobility, public institutions play an outsized role in providing a source of social support. In this context, the loss of a school represents not just the loss of a building but is experienced as a devastating loss of a sense of self and forms of social capital that are critical to the strength and resilience of the black community. Thus, the perspective of institutional mourning provides a novel conceptual resource for understanding and articulating the unique importance of public institutions in historically marginalized communities.

    While Ewing may not be the first scholar to speak truth to power, she marshals her distinctively engaging writing style and unwavering commitment to justice to deliver a scholarly text that is accessible far beyond the walls of academe. While it’s possible that a skeptical reader may be left wondering whether the author’s positionality as a black woman, native Chicagoan, and former teacher at a school targeted for closure in some ways clouds her perspective, these concerns largely miss the point. If dueling realities indeed exist, then it seems far more useful to identify the perspectives that might be missing from other critical debates—for instance, on children and families detained at the border, drinking water in Flint, and the uneven distribution of resources in postdisaster contexts—and pull these perspectives into the mainstream to inform a truly democratic public discourse. Luckily, for other foot soldiers called to participate in bending the moral arc of the universe toward justice, in Ghosts in the Schoolyard: Racism and School Closings on Chicago’s South Side Eve L. Ewing points the way forward.

    Raquel L. Jimenez

    Lawrence-Lightfoot, S. (1983). The good high school: Portraits of character and culture. New York: Basic Books.
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    Ghosts in the Schoolyard
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