Racist, Anti-Poor Mandate
Chicago Refuses Diplomas to High School Graduates
Chicago’s Democratic Party mayor Rahm Emanuel has found another way to punish minority youth for the “crime” of being poor and working-class. According to a new mandate, beginning with the class of 2020, public and charter high school seniors meeting all academic requirements to graduate will be denied their diplomas if they don’t provide proof of employment, college acceptance, trade apprenticeship or military enlistment. Emanuel’s initiative—grotesquely called “Learn. Plan. Succeed.”—is a frontal attack on Chicago Public Schools (CPS) students, who are nearly 85 percent black and Latino. Stealing high school diplomas from these students would all but eliminate even the minimal opportunity available to them. Already, their bleak future under American capitalism holds few options other than to toil as low-paid wage slaves or serve as foot soldiers in the U.S. imperialist military.
The racist “Learn. Plan. Succeed.” mandate calls to mind the post-Civil War “Black Codes” in the South requiring former slaves to show proof of an annual labor contract or else risk being arrested, fined and forced into indentured servitude. The haughty mayor blames students for their supposed lack of planning after graduation, accusing them of creating the abysmal conditions they face of unemployment, segregated schools and housing, cop terror and mass incarceration. The real culprits here are the capitalist rulers, who see little value in investing in the education of minority youth. For his part, the much-hated Emanuel will be leaving behind a legacy of having systematically gutted the Chicago public education system: school closures, teacher layoffs and education funding cuts.
Black and Latino youth, who are deprived of resources and treated as criminals in this Democratic Party stronghold, will have the odds stacked even higher against them with this mandate. Gone are the days when the south shore of Lake Michigan, from Chicago into Indiana, was filled with steel mills and other factories, or when a high school diploma could be a ticket to a well-paid union job with health benefits and a pension. Decades of union-busting and deindustrialization have shrunk the area’s manufacturing workforce, and even McJobs are not so easy to come by. Black people between 20 and 24 years of age face a 37 percent unemployment rate, nearly six times that of whites of the same age group. Black workers, who still form a core of organized labor in and around the city, have suffered a 17 percent drop in median wages between 2000 and 2015, leaving them worse off.
Many black and Latino youth who manage to jump through all the hoops and get through high school are still denied access to college because of race and class bias, despite the fact that they are fully capable of thriving at top-notch institutions. The astronomical price of tuition saddles students nationwide with crippling debt, and many CPS students cannot even afford an education at one of the City Colleges, which cost about $3,500 a year. Taking a “gap year” before college—another so-called “pathway” to a diploma under Emanuel’s plan—is a luxury afforded to Malia Obama but virtually unknown on Chicago’s black South and West sides. For free, quality, integrated public education at all levels for everyone!
The new requirement puts these students in virtual limbo, where they can’t get a diploma without a job and can’t get a job without a diploma. If anything, it is designed to give a boost to the armed forces, which are having trouble replenishing their ranks. The Army, for one, just recently missed its recruitment goal and had to cut back its target. The U.S. imperialist war machine—an instrument of conquest, terror and occupation that is unleashed against working people and the oppressed abroad—demands a regular supply of fresh blood. The hard race and class lines of “Segregation City” make it easy for military recruiters to recruit minorities through the “economic draft” that is driven by the harsh conditions of life in its ghettos and barrios. “Learn. Plan. Succeed.” is no doubt a pilot project for other heavily minority school districts across the nation.
Chicago is already the most militarized school system in the country thanks to former CPS head Arne Duncan. The Democrat Duncan, who later became Obama’s secretary of education, was instrumental to cementing a partnership with the Department of Defense that has from 1999 infused millions of military dollars into a deteriorating CPS in exchange for an ever-expanding recruitment pipeline. Today, CPS is the only district in the U.S. where all of the military branches (save the Coast Guard) have their own high school. There are six such academies—one each run by the Marines, the Navy and the Air Force, and three run by the Army. These are public schools with regular classes, but the military calls the shots and students are forced to wear military uniforms and undergo inspection and drills.
In addition, some 45 Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (JROTC) programs are housed in nearly half of the city’s remaining public high schools. Around 70 percent of JROTC programs in Chicago are at schools in majority black or Latino neighborhoods, that is, not in the whiter, selective-enrollment high schools, such as Northside Prep, Payton and Whitney Young.
All told, over 9,000 students (94 percent of them black or Latino) participate in these programs, which are incorporated into the curricula and offered as an alternative to physical education. JROTC was launched nationally in 1916 during World War I explicitly to prepare youth for war. To this day, its mission is to train teenagers to unquestioningly obey authority and to indoctrinate them to kill or be killed for “God and country.” We oppose every attempt to turn public schools into appendages of the murderous U.S. military and stand for driving out JROTC and the other military recruiters. Cut the link between CPS and the Pentagon!
The graduation mandate is cynically couched as a plan for success, but it is just another example of Democratic Party-initiated “school reform,” i.e., union-busting and starving schools of funds. From the get-go, Emanuel has engaged in a war on public education and the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU). The mayor followed in the footsteps of his former White House boss, Barack Obama, whose “Race to the Top” initiative encouraged the rapid growth of privately run charter schools, which increase racial segregation and class inequality in education and serve to undermine teachers unions. Among the Emanuel administration’s many attacks, in 2013 it carried out the single largest school closure in U.S. history, shuttering 50 CPS schools (the vast majority over three-quarters black) and laying off hundreds of unionized teachers and staff.
To the extent that CPS students get any education at all, it is a testament to the dedication of the poorly paid teachers who navigate cutbacks, decaying facilities and constant bureaucratic harassment. The CTU, with the active backing of the other unions in the city like transit and hotel workers, must mobilize to aggressively fight the graduation mandate as part of a broader defense of public education and its members’ own livelihoods. In this struggle, the teachers union would find many allies in the black and Latino community. Instead, the CTU tops have conciliated the mayor and school board, demonstrating their unflagging allegiance to the capitalist Democratic Party.
When the hurdle to graduation was first announced, then CTU president Karen Lewis pronounced it “a good plan.” Subsequently, union officials, like current CTU president Jesse Sharkey, expressed opposition based on funding and staffing concerns. Sharkey, who is supported by the International Socialist Organization, whimpered: “Our schools confront an acute shortage of high school counselors, college and career coaches and other staff…virtually guaranteeing that this policy will fail thousands of our students.” It is true that CPS counselors are overworked, but Sharkey is dodging what it means to deny students the basic right to a diploma. “Learn. Plan. Succeed.” reinforces the status of black people as second-class citizens segregated at the bottom of society and increases the multitude of miseries heaped on Latino youth in the barrios. The CTU should demand an end to the program while also fighting for additional teachers and counselors.
It is little wonder that Sharkey and Lewis are willing to barter away the futures of CPS students—they have done just that in the case of the CTU membership. On their watch, layoffs have continued apace, charter schools have expanded, and conditions for teachers, staff and students have deteriorated. In 2012, a solid strike by CTU members was called off with key issues left unresolved and the union has since been battered. Two years ago, the same CTU misleaders pulled the plug on a possible strike, accepting a giveback contract even as teachers stood ready and willing to hit the picket lines (see “Chicago Teachers Get Sold Out,” WV No. 1100, 18 November 2016).
In the face of all-sided attacks by the capitalist rulers on public education, unions and working conditions, what is needed is to mobilize labor’s power independently of and in opposition to all representatives of the class enemy, including the Democrats. To do so requires a new leadership in the unions, a class-struggle leadership that would undertake battles in the interests of all the exploited and oppressed—from halting the expansion of charter schools to leading a charge for a massive program of public works to rebuild basic infrastructure. It would engage in struggle to organize the unorganized and for jobs for all through a shorter workweek at full union wages. A successful fight to establish union-run minority job recruitment and training programs, as well as union hiring halls, would open the way to begin to redress the grave injustices of this deeply racist society.
While fighting against discrimination and segregation in schools, we understand that racial oppression cannot be rooted out short of the revolutionary overturn of the capitalist system. Eliminating race and class bias in the schools and granting everyone access to free quality and fully integrated education requires that the working class take power. The road to black liberation and the emancipation of all the oppressed lies in the fight for an egalitarian socialist society, where production is organized to serve human need, not to increase the profits of the capitalist class.
We need a revolutionary workers party, acting as a tribune of all the oppressed, to fuse the power of labor with the discontent of the ghettos and barrios in order to clear a path to workers rule. Black and Latino working-class youth in the crosshairs of the rapacious ruling class will form a key component of this party and the fight for a socialist future for humanity.