Review of “Seeking Stability in Chicago: School Actions, (C)overt Forms of Racial Injustice, and the Slow Violence of Neoliberal Rationality”
Rationale and Interest
The realities of homelessness result in overwhelming barriers to a number of essential resources. Volunteering at the Shalom Center in Bloomington, IN – a low-barrier resource center for Bloomington’s unhoused population – I have witnessed obstacles to receiving basic health care, appropriate support through benefits, and even access to basic supplies for survival. There are constantly updates reflected in homelessness policy reform which require new stipulations, new documentation, and near-constant connection between clients and social workers via phone, email, or mail. These reforms, however minor they may seem at times, create an unrealistic standard of stability given the often-transient nature of being homeless – especially in a multi-seasonal state. The framing for such policy bares striking resemblance to color-blind, or otherwise ‘objective/race-neutral” policies we see in educational spaces for Black and Brown students; it is most commonly reactive, dismissive of nuance between populations, and largely unfocused on experiential needs. For these reasons, the analysis provided from Aviles and Heybach’s (2017) work captured my attention. The use of Critical Race Theory (CRT) as a lens provided further insight and clarity to the problematic patterns and lived experiences of K-12 students facing homelessness in the United States.
Key Concepts and Themes
Aviles and Heybach (2017) narrow in on specific moments where Chicago Public School (CPS) policies, public perceptions, and outcomes have been shaped by problematic dominant ideologies – namely white supremacy and neoliberal logics. The authors use critical race theory (CRT) as a guide for both demystifying the relationship between power as constructed through these ideological frameworks and analyzing the outcomes of supposed “equal” treatment amongst CPS schools. Their focus is on schools serving predominantly Black students with a disproportionate number of students identified as homeless under the Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Assistance Act (also known as the McKinny-Vento Act) (p.2). While the purpose of the McKinny-Vento Act was to guarantee educational rights for students and families experiencing housing instability, it has a broader scope including funding for services such as adequate shelter, food and medical care (p.5). Focusing in on the closing of 49 CPS schools during the 2012-2013 school year, the authors highlight the racial and economic disparities between schools in the CPS district with a special emphasis on the impact of such disparities for students enrolled in the Students in Temporary Living Situations (STLS) program. Because housing instability is the main determinant for students recognized under the McKinney-Vento Act, CPS schools as a site of potential stability was central to this analysis.
To frame their work, authors used CRT as a theoretical and methodological tool. They rely on counterstorytelling as their main methodological approach in their use of semi-structured interviews that centered “multiple realities, attempting to understand varying perceptions, and challenging positivist notions of one single version of an event or events,” (p.11). Additionally, they accessed and analyzed a multitude of records, including data and analysis of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) and The Report of the Illinois General Assembly’s Chicago Educational Facilities Task Force (2014) to provide context to decisions made by CPS officials on the structural level. Their most explicit use of CRT theories focused on Harris’ (1991) conception of whiteness as property. Their thoughtful consideration of whiteness as property allowed them to trace the actions of CPS actions to neoliberal logics. Specifically, they connect the rhetoric of CPS justification for school closings, despite evidence of disproportionate negative impact on Black and STLS students, to an unwavering commitment (both overtly and covertly) to maintaining the interests of their white students.
To clarify, one of the central justifications for the closing of specific CPS schools was the claim of “under-utilization,” (p.7). The metric of “utilization” refers to “the idea that school buildings are not being used to their proper capacity, or not to their full potential in terms of space,” which, authors argue, is one influence of neoliberal logic on the actions and justifications provided by CPS administration (p.7). Here, authors carefully reframe the seemingly-objective/race-neutral language of “under-utilization,” “choice,” and “failing” through the lens of slow violence or, the “violence that occurs gradually and out of sight… a violence that is neither spectacular nor instantaneous but rather incremental and accretive,” (p.4). What relevance does this have for STLS students in CPS schools? If stability is of central focus, slow violence works to stabilize those processes which are already ‘natural’ under neoliberal logics of value and efficiency. More clearly, the lens of slow violence gives language to the CPS interest in “cost savings, not human investment,” (p.18).
One of the more striking moves that authors make in their analysis is tracing acts of slow violence to neoliberal logics by highlighting conditions of “engineered conflict,” as seen in school actions as white supremacy, and neoliberal policy as white supremacy (p.12). They describe a “larger system-wide disruption ripple event,” which can be tied to the reframing of schools as “potential places of profit and market capital, rather than as vital democratic spaces of education for students and their families; particularly for those who do not have access to consistent, stable housing,” (p.9). The authors contrast their view of public education as a public good with the actions of CPS officials, noting that whiteness as property had a pervasive influence on the closing of CPS schools. They argue that the actions of CPS officials imply that “education that is purported to occur within a school building is equated to the notion of whiteness – whites continue to be sole benefactors to educational spaces and therefore have the right to exclusive enjoyment of “white” space[s],” (p.8). Using the language of whiteness as property in concert with the evidence they complied, Aviles and Haybach make a compelling case of CPS’ justification as an extension of neoliberal logic – logic that sees students and families as “economic-only actors who are disposable for the betterment of the [educational] market,” (p.23). While this line of argumentation was certainly convincing, more attention could have been paid to the context and creation of an educational market on a larger scale. There are quick references to standardized testing, or funding under the McKinny Vento Act, but these are made in passing. A deeper analysis of the creation of an educational as a literal marketplace could be a worthwhile pursuit in order to bolster their arguments on the influence of neoliberal logics in public education.
The use of whiteness as property provided a sound foundation for the arguments made in this paper. Still, other theories from CRT studies might have provided further insight. For example, CRT scholars describe the process of interest divergence – a theory stemming from the CRT tenet of interest convergence, but which operates in distinct ways. While interest convergence notes the pattern of Black and minority groups achieving progress toward equality only when these steps have converged with the interests of powerful whites, interest divergence details a separate phenomenon. Interest divergence describes “a situation where white people imagine that some benefit will accrue from the further marginalization and oppression of racially minoritized groups,” (Lynn & Dixson, 2022, p.352). In the case of CPS closings, this seems to be part of the rationale. The closing and consolidation of 49 predominantly Black schools (with disproportionate numbers of STLS students) because of the logic of “underutilization” while simultaneously keeping similarly positioned schools serving predominantly white students open was explicitly framed as being “in the best interest of all students,” (Aviles & Heybach, 2017, p.10). Authors argue that it is hardly in the best interest of Black and STLS students to have what might be their greatest source of stability taken from them through neoliberal rationalities of efficiency underutilization, especially as they are tied to the perceived ‘value’ of the students which these schools serve. The insistence from CPS officials that this logic serves Black and STLS students in equitable and productive ways amounts to convincing evidence of interest divergence.
The research implications of this work are extensive. There is clear and relevant connection to educational policy – specifically the need to critically evaluate specific “objective/race-neutral” policy in the context of larger systematic burdens. Further, there is ample opportunity to analyze similar shifts in framing toward neoliberal logics in other educational spaces – specifically higher education and non-public K-12 institutions come to mind. Non-educational spaces are surely benefitted from this type of analysis as well. Based on the shared experiences navigating specific related obstacles at the Shalom Center, this article provides further context to the problematic framing of some policy reform. In order to better serve our friends and students experiencing housing instability, a framing provided by the insight of critical race scholarship which focuses on the structural maintenance of problematic patterns and centers the lived experiences of all relevant parties becomes essential.
Aviles, A. M., & Heybach, J. A. (2017). Seeking stability in Chicago: School actions, (c)overt forms of racial injustice, and the slow violence of neoliberal rationality. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 25, 58. https://doi.org/10.14507/epaa.25.2634
Lynn, M., Dixson, A. D., & Gillborn, D. (2022). The Policy of Inequity: Using CRT to Unmask White Supremacy in Education Policy . In Handbook of Critical Race Theory in Education (pp. 345–354). essay, Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.
- Omi, M., & Winant, H. (1991). Racial formation in the United States: From the 1960s to the 1980s. Routledge.
- Somers, M. R. (2010). Genealogies of citizenship: Markets, statelessness, and the right to have rights. Cambridge University Press.
- Walker, E. M. (2003). Race, class, and cultural reproduction: Critical theories in urban education. Revista Electrónica de Investigación Educativa, 5 (2). Retrieved March 12, 2023 from: http://redie.ens.uabc.mx/vol5no2/contents-walker.html
- What lens does CRT provide for better understanding how issues are framed? Why does it matter how we frame specific reform if it is intended to work towards progress?
- At what point, when we are using policy to address specific local issues, should we consider the broader national sociopolitical context? Is it always relevant if we are aiming to center specific (i.e. local) voices?
- Are there ways to build policy that do not rely on essentialized experiences of particular groups? Are there examples you can think of where flexibility and nuance is built into a specific educational policy aimed at resolving a specific issue/pattern?