Ghosts in the Schoolyard: Racism and School Closings on Chicago's Southside by Eve L. Ewing
London: Trentham Books, 2018
Reviewed by Kierra Toney
Eve L. Ewing’s Ghost in the Schoolyard: Racism and School Closings on Chicago’s South Side, is a compelling, purposeful and reflexive example of critical race theory (CRT) in education. Ewing displays the rigor and quality of a critical race theorist by employing four methodological approaches in four chapters on the school closures in Chicago’s southside neighborhood of Bronzeville. Each chapter centers around the central question of the book: “Why do people care so much about schools that the world has deemed to be failing?” (6). Ewing reveals that the answer to this question is as multifaceted as the historical moment in which it is situated. Between January 2015 and January 2016, Ewing sets out to find this answer using: “field observations, document analysis, review of audio transcripts and interviews with community members” (6). Upon reading this book, one will find that each carefully dictated approach is necessary to unveil the answer to the above question.
In chapter 1 “What a School Means”, Ewing tells the story of a community whose outrage over the attempted closure of their beloved school lead to a month-long hunger strike and a bittersweet victory. In 2011, Dyett High was deemed one of many schools in Bronzeville to be “failing” and therefore to be phased out and ultimately closed. The efforts of Revitalize Dyett, a collective of community members, helped push the administration of the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) to reopen Dyett; however, the reopening was a textbook example of interest convergence to serve the political interest of the mayor. This victory left mixed emotions as a representative of CPS announced “We all fought for Dyett. Together.” erasing the efforts and realities of the coalition whose members weren’t even allowed to be inside of the final public hearing (46).
Ewing uses Chapter 2 to examine how Bronzeville’s present issues with racial tension is connected to its past. During the time of Ewing’s research, community members saw the school district’s decision to close fifty-four schools by the end of the academic year, 87 percent of which were majority Black, as “a part of a historical pattern and larger plan to push Black residents out of Chicago” (55). The CEO from 2012 to 2015, Barbara Byrd-Bennet, was adamant that the closures were not racist but instead due to the schools being “under-resourced and underutilized”, eluding CPS culpability. In this chapter Ewing expertly covers the Great Migration, racial violence, restrictive real estate covenants, as well as the rise and fall of public housing. This history of systemic racism is plain to see and generationally felt to those who lived through, yet somehow goes completely unacknowledged by the administrators of the school district who deny any fault in its reification.
Chapter 3, “Dueling Realities,” covers just that, the dueling realities which represents each side of the debate around three school closures in the Bronzeville community. Between observations and testimonies, Ewing discusses counternarratives, institutional mistrust, accountability, power, neoliberalism, and racism. She contends, “From beyond the Veil, these schools look irredeemable. But for those within the Veil, there’s more to the story” (p. 96-97). This DuBoisian concept describes the scene of the public-school closure hearings which Ewing observed as being more “like a trial, with each school acting as defendant” where it seems the fate of the school had been predetermined (95).
Chapter 4, “Mourning,” eerily covers the aftermath of school closures, and the countless other losses the Black community has borne as a result of battling racist systems of oppression. This chapter also provides the reader with a rational for the title. The narratives Ewing captures are stories of mourning institutions which as she puts it “makes them ghost stories” (153). Ewing writes, “Institutional mourning is the social and emotional experience undergone by individuals and communities facing the loss of a shared institution they were affiliated with” (127). Even further, this chapter approaches grief surrounding these institutions from an Afrocentric perspective to reflect the complicated grief experienced by students, parents, alumni, and teachers of these “failing” schools. The loss of these schools is experienced by the community as “unjust deaths” which “renders mourning at once personal and historical” (142).
Ewing reveals to the reader in the conclusion of the book that she is not anti-school-closures; rather she is concerned with “expanding the frame with which we see school closure as a policy decision” (158). There is an understanding that change is inevitable and yet there is always a choice to enact change in an “ethical” way (162). It is the framing of the “underutilization” of schools in Bronzeville which the community members take issue with; the lack of accountability. Though Ewing acknowledges the “myriad ways CPS enacts harmful policies” against Black people, could the solution to this one case of injustice really be a simple as reframing (162)? While I agree with the notion that solutions to issues are constrained by the frame through which we view them, the conclusion could have benefitted from Ewing giving concrete examples of how the conflict around school closures could have been resolved had CPS considered reframing.
Ewing’s Ghost in the Schoolyard is a critical work for those interested in urban education, sociology of education, community relationships, and the nexus of school-community partnerships. In investigating why communities fight for their schools, Ewing finds that answers to such a question have been systemically camouflaged by majoritarian logic, bureaucratic denial of responsibility, and the historical ramifications racist policymaking. Ewing determines that the people who care so much about the closure of the schools discussed in this book know that school closures are about more than the school buildings themselves; they know that racism is pervasive and recognize the power of Black collective memory. Ewing insist that others follow her lead by setting “our sights on what it would look like the get things right” in regard to education and “integrate those visions into our rhetoric and our strategy” (165). In this way Ewing displays the revolutionary and liberating capabilities of CRT.
About the Author
Kierra Toney, University of Cincinnati