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The front-page headline to the lead story in the Sunday Tribune asked: "25 years after the death of HAROLD WASHINGTON, are black Chicagoans BETTER OR WORSE OFF?"
And on October 31, Carol Marin sat down with the new CEO of the Chicago Public Schools on WTTW's Chicago Tonight and wondered:
"In the time I've been a reporter here I can name Paul Vallas, Arnie Duncan, Ron Huberman, Terry Mazany, J.C. Brizard, and now you as superintendent. Every one that I have named is a really smart person committed and hopeful about the transformation of the public schools systems. All the others have not succeeded though they've tried. What makes you think that you will be different?"
Public officials see progress everywhere they look. That's a big part of the reason why journalists have a lot of trouble seeing it anywhere at all. But Dawn Turner Trice, who wrote the Tribune story, didn't claim that 25 years later it's still the same old, same old. Trice, in fact, didn't attempt to answer the question she posed, though she noted that the black unemployment rate in Chicago in 1987, the year Washington suddenly died in office, was 17.2 percent and today it's 24.2 percent, and that, for what it's worth, Chicago "remains the most racially segregated city in the country." For many, what Washington accomplished as Chicago's first black mayor "is incalculable and enduring," Trice wrote, and wisely, she let several Chicagoans who remember the Washington era tell their separate stories.
I remember the Washington era too, and also Chicago for almost a decade and a half before he was elected. I would call that election by far the single most positive thing to happen in Chicago since I came here: it pulled the thorn of racial hatred from the city's paw. "Before it's too late," Bernie Epton's infamous campaign slogan when he almost defeated Washington in 1983, put the issue of racial terror out there on the table for all to see; and Council Wars kept it there. But Chicago reelected Washington in '87, and when he died a few months later the city was palpably more grown-up. White Chicago had stopped believing in the bogeyman. Did black Chicagoans benefit from this sea change? I would have to think so.
The interesting thing about Carol Marin's question was its premise—which CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett did not question. Yet Chicago's public schools are transformed. There is failure, which I suppose fairly describes CPS's current attempts to educate most of its students, and there is indifference—which I think fairly describes the massive CPS bureaucracy before Washington. Chicago now offers exceptional high schools such as Northside and Payton, a string of first-rate magnet schools, and even neighborhood schools turned around by the communities whose kids now go to them. It's no longer necessary, if you're a Chicago parent who wants to educate his children, to move to the suburbs to do it.
As a middle-class white father and home owner living on the north side, I understand that I'm not the sort of Chicagoan the above questioners had it mind. I'll have my say regardless. Don't underestimate the power of reform, as it trickles down—or doesn't—to the folks who may or may not ever benefit from it, to make life a lot better for others along the way.