A parable on systemic vs. individual justice


There was a really interesting article in the Chicago Tribune yesterday, and it can be found here:

It is written by John Kass, whom i don’t always agree with, yet almost always find intellectually stimulating.  In the article he explores and details how it is – from his perception – that Mayor Daley created a higher tier of education in Chicago to appeal to and attract the middle and upper middle class families of our city, and how that left a lower tier of schools perpetually failing.

As for this post, I am neither attempting to agree or disagree with these assertions.  What struck me more than anything was how good of a parable this is for understanding power and systems of justice, fairness, and equality.  For some of us that have grown up in the dominant culture, these can be difficult concepts to grasp.  In this column we see how it could happen, in what Kass calls ‘Machiavellian.’  That’s usually how it happens I’m afraid.  Here is a big chunk from the article:

But today, I’m not going to rip on Daley. Instead, let’s focus on his brilliance, in creating Chicago’s two-tiered public school system. It bound the professional class to him and maintained him in power.

The mayor knows how it works. He etched it into Chicago’s civic infrastructure years ago, when he took over the public schools.

Machiavellian? Yes. Because it is a relationship that feeds upon the love of hard-working, tax-paying parents for their children. And it works just fine for the mayor too.

When first elected in 1989, Daley eagerly reached out to those in the city’s predominantly white professional class. They were edgy and many were considering leaving Chicago.

In response, the mayor built top magnet and college prep high schools, pushing through work-rule changes to attract the best teachers. He produced the schools that nervous white-collar voters demanded.

Members of the professional class wanted city life. But they wanted their children educated. They became clients of Daley’s first tier.

The second tier pretty much remained the same, a tier mostly for minorities and the poor.

Daley spent millions upon millions of dollars on new school buildings in low-income neighborhoods. This massive wave of construction endeared him to the predominantly white trade unions: the carpenters, the bricklayers, the electricians who formed his power base on the Far Southwest Side and the southwest suburbs.

But education in the second tier remains abysmal. High school dropout rates are still around 50 percent, yet much higher when magnet schools are exempted. But even as tens of thousands of kids drop out to become calcified in the permanent underclass, the second tier still supports the mayor.

It’s not just about education. It is about jobs and patronage. Top teachers either fled or were lured to the top schools. But middle-rung teachers and below are the backbone of the teachers union.

The neighborhoods were rewarded with local school councils to elect, and budgets to manage and principals to appoint. By allowing the locals to run their mini-fiefdoms, Daley bound neighborhood activists to the system.

His summary towards the end is what is most stinging.  This is a wonderfully accurate description of how and why systems of power tend to be protected generation after generation:

Daley’s school system is a brilliant political enterprise. Except for the first-tier minority, the educational product is a failure. But that’s not what’s vitally important to the Illinois political class. What’s important are votes. The bureaucracy gets the budget and the jobs. The elites get top prep schools.

When human beings are seeking what’s best for their children, they’re not exactly interested in complaining about how City Hall runs things. Dealing with entrance exams, lobbying for school placement, writing appeals to the lords of the magnet schools is difficult enough.

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3 thoughts on “A parable on systemic vs. individual justice

  1. Wow. I confess, I regularly avoid Kass because he frankly sounds like a snarky bigot most of the time, but this is an excellent analysis of what might be happening not only in Chicago but in other cities and states around the nation. And I daresay it’s a strategy that both Democrats and Republicans are putting to use in different ways.

  2. Hey Ed– i agree, which is why i am hesitant to quote him. But like you i thought it was an interest and excellent analysis of how different classes get calcified and protected by the powers that be

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