“Racism is over. We have a black president!” “Why does it always have to be about race? Most people aren’t racist anymore.” “We live in a post-racist society, don’t make it about race. Black people are racist too.” These are just a few of the many comments made mostly by white peers, but also some people of color, in lieu of the recent events in Ferguson and the Michael Brown shooting. The manifestation of ignorance that stems from these comments is flabbergasting, seeing that evidence of racism and systematic racism exists not only right outside of our very doors, but on our screens in our own homes as well. My project focused on how systematic racism in the United States affects the role of education in the lives of people of color, specifically blacks, in the city of Chicago.
Chicago is one of the most segregated cities in the United States. Figure 1 shows exactly how much. Understandably, segregated neighborhoods lead to segregated schools. This racial divide is directly correlated with the socioeconomic divide in the city. The schools in Chicago that are struggling the most are located in predominantly black neighborhoods –most of these on the south side- suffering from significant unemployment rates and lack of resources. As I visited CPS schools on the south side of Chicago, rarely -if ever- did I see a white student. White students make up only 9% of the CPS population, whereas Hispanics make up 45%, and blacks, 39% (http://cps.edu/About_CPS/At-a-glance/Pages/Stats_and_facts.aspx). Although Chicago is about equal parts white, Hispanic, and black, it is true that there is a considerably smaller white population within school aged children. However, even so, a significantly less percentage of school aged white children (51%) attend CPS than school aged black students (85%). (See Figure 2)
If students are not attending CPS, they are most likely attending private schools, which means about half of school aged white kids in Chicago attend private schools compared to only 15% of black kids. For example, the University of Chicago Lab School, which is located on the south side of Chicago in Hyde Park, is over 60% white and less than 9% black. 0% of the entire student population comes from low-income backgrounds. It is evident that racial and economic segregation go hand in hand in this country and city.
After speaking to black high school students in Chicago, it was very clear to me that there is little opportunity for them to attend a private school because most come from low-income backgrounds and their families cannot pay the tuition. But wait; can’t these students attend selective schools? Yes, free selective schools exist in the CPS system and all students in the city and suburbs are allowed to try and test into them. These schools are the elite schools in the CPS system and even in the country, being the highest scoring schools in the state. Admittance to any of the four selective schools –Whitney Young, Northside Prep, Walter Payton, and Jones- is sure to lead many students down a road of success. These schools would be a great tool to use in trying to desegregate the city, except for the fact that the admittance process does not work in favor of low-income black students.
These selective schools give 30% of the available seats to those who score the highest on the tests regardless of background. Take a guess as to whom most of those seats end up going to: rich white kids. The remaining 70% of seats are divided up into a tier system based on income. There are 4 tiers. The income level and other factors of each tier are shown in figure 3. WBEZ “found that 29 percent of current freshmen at Walter Payton College Prep graduated from private grammar schools. At the other elite high schools, the number is right around 20 percent. And private school kids make up only around 12 percent of those testing to get into these schools.” (Story can be found here: http://www.wbez.org/story/chicagos-best-high-schools-who-gets-who-doesnt-97110) It also does not help that CPS no longer uses race as an admissions factor for these selective schools.
To help deal with the issue of segregation in Chicago in regards to education, CPS must begin instilling a quota based on race for these selective schools. Additionally, these selective schools ought to have a maximum number of students from private grammar schools that can be admitted. These students who are coming from elite grammar schools are taking seats that could be given to low-income students for selective schools are one of the few places they can go to take part in a rigorous curriculum.
When speaking to black high school students on the south side of Chicago, none of them denied the importance of education. All students realized the value of an education in this country. However, 93 of 100 students felt that they did not have the resources to attend elite schools and were skeptical in their abilities to attend a prestigious university. These students were unaware of the substantial financial aid that is available at prestigious universities. The lack of motivation I saw in some of these students was disheartening, but not shocking. The way black and brown lives are portrayed in the media and treated in the United States makes it very understandable as to why there is a lack of motivation in the black community. Education is key to fueling that motivation. After finishing this project, I hope to start a program that will utilize University of Chicago students of color from low-income backgrounds to show students in the south side community that people like us can succeed, it will be hard work, but worth it in the end.
— Aya Smith, Quest Scholar, University of Chicago ’14