Here’s How Black Communities Responded to School Closures

Here’s How Black Communities Responded to School Closures

Sally NuamahBlack Chicagoans who lived near a school that was shuttered during the largest wave of public-school closures in US history became more politically active and held their local officials accountable, according to a new Northwestern University study coauthored by professor Sally Nuamah. 

In 2012, Chicago Public Schools initiated a move to close 49 of nearly 500 schools, a wave that disproportionately affected Black American neighborhoods. Residents protested, but the extent of the effort was unclear, in part because of a tendency by researchers and the media to focus on national issues, rather than local.

Using official election returns, the Cooperative Congressional Election Study, and original data on the unprecedented mass closure of schools, Nuamah, assistant professor of human development and social policy, and co-author Thomas Ogorzalek, co-director of the Chicago Democracy Project, showed that those living near one of the schools attended political meetings more often and mobilized in support of ballot measures to avert future closings.

They also increased their participation in the subsequent local election, while decreasing their support for the political official responsible for the policy on the ballot—at a higher rate than every other group.

“Those who previously participated at the lowest rates went on to participate at the highest rates on community issues that matter to them—in this instance, school closure,” they wrote in the journal American Political Science Review.

Nuamah and Ogorzalek developed what they called a “theory of place-based mobilization” to explain the role of the community as a catalyst for political action for marginalized groups. ‘Community’, they said, is both the place where the policy’s effects are concentrated and the racial group most affected by the guidelines.  They found engagement wasn’t solely based on a person’s own experience; they acted as a member of the impacted community even if not directly affected.

“Citizens’ political attitudes and behavior are shaped by the communities in which they are embedded and the institutions that anchor those communities,” they wrote. “Public schools represent these types of institutions for many Americans, but especially those with lower levels of socioeconomic resources or interest in national politics.”

Most political science focuses on national issues and samples. These studies find very limited effects of localized policy effects on political behavior. But these kinds of studies have a hard time seeing complex, local effects in understudied communities, the researchers argue.

USA politics is highly nationalized—but less so for many Black Americans. For them, local policies have even more direct, often life-shaping impacts which can be seen in movements such as the Black Lives Matter’s response to harsh policing tactics.

“We suggest that if political scientists look locally and ask appropriate questions, then they will likely find relatively high levels of political engagement on display from even the most traditionally “demobilized” communities,” they wrote.

The political action that matters most in the study of democracy is “the participation of those who are most frequently targeted but so often ignored because national conversations and electoral choices seldom engage with the issues that are closest to home,” they wrote.

“And through their participation, we find not another story of uninformed, unengaged voters, but rather of rational citizens doing their part to hold democracy accountable to all it promises.”

Read the full article, Close to Home: Place-Based Mobilization in Racialized Contexts.






By Julie Deardorff
Last Modified: 9/30/22