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Poet Eve Ewing Connects 1919 Chicago To Today's Racial Unrest

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. While writing a book about systemic racial inequality in Chicago public schools, my guest Eve L. Ewing did a lot of research into the history of segregation in Chicago. One of the most helpful documents she read was a report published in 1922 titled "The Negro In Chicago: A Study On Race Relations And A Race Riot." It was written by six black men and six white men who were asked to research the reasons behind the riots in Chicago in July 1919 and to make recommendations about how to prevent them from happening again. The 1919 riots started after a 17-year-old black youth was swimming in Lake Michigan and swam into a part of the lake that was considered for whites only. He was stoned by white people and drowned. Black people on the black part of the beach demanded that a police officer arrest the person considered responsible, and he refused.

Ewing's book "1919" is a series of poems in response to the report. Most of the poems open with a quote from the report. Her book won this year's best poetry book award from the Black Caucus of the American Library Association. Ewing is also a sociologist who teaches classes on race and education at the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration, where she's an assistant professor. Her books include "Ghosts In The Schoolyard: Racism And School Closings On Chicago's South Side." She also writes the "Champions" series for Marvel comics and previously wrote the "Ironheart" series. We're going to start by talking about her book of poems "1919."

Eve Ewing, welcome to FRESH AIR. I want to start with your book of poems "1919." It seems so relevant to today. You know, we all say if you want to understand what's happening now, you have to understand history. This is a really interesting part of that history that very few people know about, I think. So the book of poems is inspired by the report that was commissioned after the riots in 1919. It was a commission of six black men and six white men who were tasked with analyzing what happened during the riots, why it happened and to make recommendations from preventing that from happening again.

Before we get to what precipitated this uprising, let's talk about the opening quote that you use in the book, which is a quote from the introduction to the report. And that quote is, "the report contains recommendations, which, if acted upon, will make impossible, in my opinion, a repetition of the appalling tragedy which brought disgrace to Chicago in July of 1919." What do you think about when you read that quote?

EVE EWING: Well, the most obvious thing that comes to mind is the many repetitions of these appalling tragedies that we've seen since the report was written. And I think part of what I wanted to do in juxtaposing this text from 1922 with poems and inviting kind of an analysis from the reader is that there are so many things from a century ago that are radically different. And it seems that there are far many more things that are resoundingly familiar and frighteningly the same. And so, you know, so much of what the book is about is about the ways that time kind of folds in on itself. And unfortunately, we didn't follow the recommendations in that report a hundred years ago. And Chicago, in many ways, doesn't look that different in 2020 as it did in 1919.

GROSS: What were the recommendations in that report?

EWING: It's funny. They're recommendations that would look really familiar to you in a report that somebody might put out now - so things like, we need to make sure that black people in Chicago have access to affordable and high-quality housing. We need to make sure that black people in Chicago have access to excellent schools and that they can get great teachers. We need to make sure that people have a fair shot at getting the same jobs as their white neighbors. We need to make sure that black people can safely use parks and pools and public facilities. It's discouraging to read the recommendations you would read now being issued a century ago and knowing, with the benefit of hindsight, everything that's happened since.

GROSS: So I want to read another paragraph from the introduction to this report. And I think it shows the perspective of a hundred years ago that these people who were writing the report were looking at the issue of race. And they're trying to contend with, like - there's all these people who moved to Chicago during the Great Migration. And a lot of white people, like, don't want them there. You know, how do we deal with this? How do we deal with the issue of race and that black people were brought here as slaves?

So they write, countless schemes have been proposed for solving or dismissing this problem, most of them impractical or impossible. Of this class, such proposals as, one, the deportation of 12 million Negroes to Africa; two, the establishment of a separate Negro state in the U.S.; three, complete separation and segregation from the whites and the establishment of a caste system or peasant class and, four, hope for a solution through the dying out of the Negro race.

Now, the people who wrote this report later say it is now recognized generally that the two races are here in America to stay. So a hundred years ago, they're still addressing the issue of, like...

EWING: What do we do?

GROSS: What do we do with these black people (laughter)?

EWING: Right, right.

GROSS: Like...

EWING: Right. What do we do? And by the way, you know, the premise of that entire quote also rests on the erasure of Indigenous people, right? So even the framing of the two races is kind of predicated on that eradication. And so, yeah, it's really disturbing. And I think one thing I want to, you know, make clear is that the folks writing this report see themselves as kind of upstanding - other people see them as kind of upstanding citizens toward racial progress. So there are six black men and six white men. I always joke that women had not yet been invented at this time, so they weren't able to find any to serve on the commission. And so this is, you know - these are not their opinions, but this is their honest assessment of the things that other people have put forth to solve, you know, the Negro problem.

GROSS: But I think the most shocking part there is hope for a solution through the dying out of the Negro race. And again, it's not the people writing the report who are proposing this. They're looking at how people have dealt with it in the past or thought about it in the past. But it's a part of the past that they're still contending with in...

EWING: Right.

GROSS: ...The present of the 1920s.

EWING: Right. And I think it's shocking to hear said explicitly. But I think one of the things about this text that resonates for the present moment is that, you know, I think that there are a lot of people that still think that. And I think that there are different ways in which it's become possible for that sentiment to evolve and morph in different ways and be said in ways that are more or less socially acceptable. But I think the basic sentiment is still there and undergirds a lot of the basic functioning of American society.

GROSS: Your book of poems is written in dialogue with this report. So after hearing that paragraph Countless Schemes from the report, you have a poem called "Countless Schemes." Would you read it for us?

EWING: I'd be happy to.

GROSS: And you pair this poem with the passage that I read.

EWING: Yes. So every poem in the book begins with a passage from this archival text, which is my sneaky way of getting people to read (laughter) an archival text, which, by the way, is available in its entirety in .PDF widely on the Internet. So folks who really want you can go read it. But yes, I'm going to read this poem. The title is "Countless Schemes."

(Reading) One - you don't have enough boats. We came here head to toe, and now we are millions. We demand to sit upright. And so you don't have enough boats. Two - you would give us the most wretched desert, not the desert of our fathers where God is watching and manna comes down like the snow. You would give us all that is barren. You would give our children sand to eat. Three - we been had that. Four - you said hope for a solution through the dying out of the Negro race, hope for a solution through the dying out of the Negro, hope for a solution through the dying out. You said hope for the Negro dying, hope through the dying, hope for the dying out, the solution dying. You said dying, the Negro, the Negro dying, the Negro hope, hope the Negro. You said hope for dying, hope dying, dying, dying. You said hope.

GROSS: Thanks for reading that, Eve. And that's from Eve Ewing's book of poems "1919." I didn't know about the riot of 1919. I didn't know about Red Summer, in which there were riots in several cities across America related to racial issues. How did you become aware of it?

EWING: You know, Terry, I think that you are very much not alone in not being very familiar with this period in history, and that's something I've thought about a lot. My working theory after, you know, being asked this question a couple of times about, like, why do you think people don't know much about it is that it's a story that doesn't have any heroes. So, you know, the other stories about racial conflict we like to tell ourselves about America - these are very facile stories. But the story about the Civil War is that it was really bad, and then Abraham Lincoln came and saved the day. The story we tell ourselves about the civil rights movement is that it was really hard, and then Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks came and saved the day. And in the Red Summer, nobody - there's nobody. There's no hero figure that we can kind of pin this facile story on. It's just a story about people harming each other, specifically white people harming black people randomly in waves in America's cities. And in Chicago, the riot that we saw here was the most violent. Twenty-three black people died. Fifteen white people died. Five hundred thirty-seven people were injured. And it lasted for several days. It lasted for almost two weeks.

So, you know, the way I became interested in it is I had read little bits about the Red Summer here and there. But only when I was doing the research for my second book when I started diving into the kind of archival history of early Chicago, this text, "The Negro in Chicago," became a huge source. And I was just so fascinated with it because it's something that shouldn't be poetry - right? - if we're thinking about it in an obvious way. It's a government state-commissioned document. It's really long. It's pretty wonky. It has a lot of data. And it's just sort of, you know - you might think of it as really dry. But it had these lines that, for me, were just so evocative and to me felt like little poems.

And so I wanted to be in conversation with these authors, and I also wanted to be in conversation with my neighbors who were murdered a hundred years ago on the streets where I walk. I wanted to give them a little bit of a space for a memorial. And I also wanted to create an accessible way for people who don't really know anything about this time period to enter it.

GROSS: Well, we need to take a short break here. If you're just joining us, my guest is poet and sociologist Eve Ewing. Her book of poems is called "1919." Her book about Chicago's schools is called "Ghosts In The Schoolyard: Racism And School Closings On Chicago's South Side." We'll be back after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN COLTRANE'S "OUT OF THIS WORLD")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Eve Ewing, a poet and sociologist who teaches courses on race and education at the University of Chicago, where she's an assistant professor. Her book of poems "1919" is a collection of poems reacting to a report written in 1921 by a commission appointed to investigate the 1919 riots in Chicago and come up with recommendations to prevent a recurrence. Her book about the closing of Chicago's schools, deemed underresourced and underutilized, is called "Ghosts In The Schoolyard: Racism And School Closings On Chicago's South Side."

So what precipitated the 1919 riot in Chicago?

EWING: The broader context is that during the Great Migration, thousands and thousands of black people are coming North from the agricultural South, looking for work, trying to escape what was really a violent state and extrajudicial regime of punishment and oppression overseen by, you know, governments in the South as well as the Klan as well as just random lynch mobs. And so 50,000 black people came to Chicago during this one decade. It was just a massive population growth in a really short period of time.

And, you know, that was happening also in the context of this period right after World War I, when many black veterans were returning. And so on the one hand, you have white people who are increasingly uncomfortable with the presence of new black neighbors, keeping in mind that this is in a context of just massive American demographic change anyway - right? - like, lots of Eastern European immigrants, lots of immigrants coming from other places. And yet the presence of black people is seen as too great an indignity.

The specific event that took place was that a teen boy named Eugene Williams was swimming on a hot summer day on July 27, 1919. And Eugene was swimming in Lake Michigan, as we do. And in Chicago, we never had de jure segregation. So Chicago was never a Jim Crow city. But we've always had de facto segregation, meaning, you know, just by habit and by practice, our city is very segregated. And so on this particular day, Eugene was swimming in Lake Michigan. And he drifted over from what was unofficially the black part of the beach and the water to the white part of the beach and the water.

And what happened next - there's a few different disputing accounts. Either he looked onto the beach and saw that there was a group of white young people throwing rocks at black people and he became afraid and didn't want to get out of the water and/or he was actually hit in the head by a rock. But whatever happened, Eugene drowned, and people saw it happen. A group of black people who witnessed it demanded that a police officer arrest some of the people throwing rocks. They refused to do that, and tensions escalated. A shot was fired by a man named James Crawford, who was then shot himself by the police. And that's how everything basically popped off thereafter.

GROSS: You have a poem about Eugene Williams drowning...

EWING: Yes.

GROSS: ...And dying. It's called "Jump/Rope," and it's written like a jump-rope rhyme. Would you read it for us?

EWING: Like all the poems in the book, this begins with a quotation from the report "The Negro In Chicago." Here's the quotation. "On Sunday, July 27, 1919, there was a clash of white people and Negroes at a bathing beach in Chicago, which resulted in the drowning of a Negro boy."

"Jump/Rope" - (singing) little Eugene, Gene, Gene, sweetest I've seen, seen, seen - his mama told him, him them white boys mean, mean, mean. He didn't listen, listen, listen to what Mama say, say, say, went to the lake, lake, lake that July day, day, day.

No, it goes like, (singing) little Eugene W., so sorry to trouble you. Rise, Eugene, rise. Calm your mama's cries. Just sit up and look around. Don't let them bury you down.

No, it goes like - (singing) down, down baby, down, down, the water's tugging. Sweet, sweet baby, don't make me let you go. Swallow, swallow, grab the sky. Swallow, swallow, dark. Swallow, swallow, grab the sky. Swallow, swallow dark. Grandma, Grandma, sick in bed. Call on Jesus because your baby's - no, it goes like (singing) all dressed in black, black, black, all dressed in black, black, black, all dressed in - and he never came back, back, back.

GROSS: Thank you, Eve. It's a beautiful poem. What inspired you to write it as a jump-rope rhyme?

EWING: That's also hard for me to read, No. 1 because it's very sad - No. 2 because I am not a singer and I have to sing this poem. So I always get really anxious about it. But you know, I wrote it that way because I think about - you know, a lot of my work has to do with children and how we defend and celebrate the rights of children and particularly the rights of black children to be children. And I thought about Eugene and about the moments of terror he experienced in the last moments of his life and all the things that he will never do.

And the thing about jump-rope songs that amazes me is that somehow they're this piece of, like, childhood folk oral tradition where the same songs get passed, you know, from generation to generation in a world where a lot of other things have changed. And I wouldn't be surprised if maybe in his time Eugene heard or sang some of the same versions or, you know, different iterations of jump-rope songs that maybe I sang and heard when I was a kid.

So I thought about, you know, the jump-rope song as really a way of eulogizing him as a psalm. And then also, of course, you know, playing with the image of the rope as being one that is most readily associated with lynching. So this moment, what happens to Eugene is also a lynching. And the rope - the physical rope is absent, so I'm kind of bringing in the specter of the rope here as well.

GROSS: Let's get back to the riot of 1919 in Chicago. What happened during the riots?

EWING: One of the things that the commission writes about is that there were mass groups of what we would today refer to as gangs, what then were referred to as athletic clubs. These were groups of young white men who often had the patronage of a powerful Chicago politician. They were kind of get-out-the-vote enforcers. They were basically neighborhood muscle that had this political protection. And these groups of young white men, these roving gangs, were responsible for the majority of the violence that happened. And there were also several black people that killed white attackers in self-defense. But for the most part, there were these random acts of violence where black people were pulled off of street cars, pulled out of restaurants, accosted on the street and murdered at random by these roving groups of young people.

Very famously, one of the athletic clubs - which, again, we would today just call gangs - was called the Hamburg Club. And the Hamburg Club had a very famous member. And that was Richard J. Daley. He would, a couple of years after the riots, become president of the Hamburg Club. And he very famously refused to ever answer outright whether or not he'd been involved in the riots of 1919. It feels pretty unlikely that when all of his friends were out randomly roaming the streets that he was, like, I'm going to stay at home, if he had the level of participation that would make him then be president of the club a couple years later. But that's just me speculating.

Of course, Richard J. Daley would grow up to become, arguably, the most powerful mayor and one of the most powerful politicians in all of American history who oversaw the Chicago of the 1960s, who famously issued a shoot-to-kill order in 1968 during protests at that period and who was the father of Richard M. Daley, who is the - who succeeded his father and became the longest-serving mayor of Chicago. And so you know, you could say that a Chicago political dynasty, an American political dynasty is born in this moment of the riots.

And as the violence wore on over several days, the National Guard was called in. One of the things that the police did was they established what they called a deadline across a street called Wentworth Avenue, where they said, OK, well, no black people can go west of this street and no white people can go east of this street for their own protection. And today Wentworth Avenue still serves as that same kind of boundary, where west of Wentworth is where you find Bridgeport, the neighborhood that was the historic stronghold of the Daleys. And east of Wentworth is what, you know, part of what we know as the black South Side.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is poet and sociologist Eve Ewing. Her book of poems is called "1919." Her book about Chicago schools is called "Ghosts In The Schoolyard: Racism And School Closings On Chicago's South Side." We'll talk more after we take a short break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Eve L. Ewing, a poet and sociologist who teaches courses on race and education at the University of Chicago, where she's an assistant professor. Her book of poems, "1919," is a collection of poems reacting to a report written in 1921 by a commission appointed to investigate the 1919 riots in Chicago and come up with recommendations to prevent a recurrence. Her book about the closing of Chicago schools that were deemed under-resourced and underutilized is called "Ghosts In The Schoolyard: Racism And School Closings On Chicago's South Side."

So you have a poem written from the perspective of James Crawford, who is a black man who fired into the crowd of black and white officers who were refusing to do anything to stop the rock-throwing, the rock-throwing that forced Eugene Williams to drown. Tell us the story of what happened in the shooting to your knowledge.

EWING: Well, you know, at this point, people were getting agitated, demanding arrest, demanding that something happened. And James Crawford, who we don't really know much else about him. He is a black migrant living in Chicago. And for whatever reason, he, you know, felt like there was not enough action being taken. And he pulled out a gun and fired at the officers. And he missed. And a black police officer shot him and killed him. And the report says, specifically, a negro policeman, who had been sent to help restore order, shot him and killed him. And so he becomes the first casualty of this riot.

GROSS: Why did you want to write a poem from his perspective?

EWING: I'm always obsessed with which names we learn and which names we don't learn and why. And there's so much that we will never know about this man. I don't know why he pulled a gun. I don't know if he was part of a broader political movement. I don't know what he thought was going to happen. I don't know if he had any prior history. I mean, he was really outnumbered.

So you know, I don't know what he expected from that moment or if it was something that wasn't rational and he was just overcome. We'll just - I'll just never know what was going through his head. All I know is that he then dies. And so the poem is a small attempt at kind of inhabiting the story and giving an emotional life that we otherwise can't access to this historical moment.

GROSS: Would you read it for us?

EWING: (Reading) "James Crawford Speaks." I saw the whites of his eyes before he let go the railroad tie that kept him almost afloat, almost alive, almost able to walk home, almost able to lay out first in the sand and feel the sun, almost able to face the stones, almost more than a stone's throw away, almost hidden from this terrible place and its everywhere eyes, almost free, almost not having his name in the mouths of fiends, almost not having his name in my mouth, almost nobody nowhere, gone home to nothing. Me, too - almost nobody, like me, too. I didn't want to be somebody. But he was somebody because I saw the whites of his eyes before he let go of the railroad tie. So I spoke it. His name came out of me. And I fired.

GROSS: Thanks for reading that, Eve. And that's from Eve Ewing's collection of poems "1919." Tell us more about how the riot of 1919 and reading about what black people from the South faced in the North after the Great Migration, how did that affect your reaction to the killing of George Floyd and the protests that followed?

EWING: First of all, one thing is that I have come to believe that it is really important to make space for mourning and for sadness and for grief. And this book is a grieving book. It's a mourning book. And I think - it was very hard for me to write. I've written four books. It was the hardest book of the four. And I think I learned through that to make a lot of space for my sadness. And so one thing I think is important right now is for black people everywhere - all people, but specifically black people - to make space for our feelings, to make space for sadness, to pay attention to the ways in which fear and grief are shaping our everyday attempts to live and breathe and thrive on a daily basis.

So that's something I've been trying to do. And that has been hard. I'm very sad, very sad a lot of the time. I'm very angry a lot of the time. And that's just something that is a reality of life. The other thing that I've learned is I, as a person, have very little faith in the sole power of information or even shocking information to change people's sentiments in a country in which our entire social fabric is predicated upon the dehumanization of black people since the nation's inception.

And the reason I say that is because if you read this 800-some-page report, these were people that were really committed to gathering the right information. They interviewed lots of black people. They did lots of surveys. They went door to door. They talked to people about the ways they experienced discrimination in the workplace and in housing and the fear that they felt. And they did their due diligence to tell people and to make it clear that this is not about failures of character, but about failures of a city to live up to its promises, failures of a country to live up to its promises.

And so in recent days, I have been deeply moved and, in moments, encouraged by the ways in which people are rallying around the cause of protecting and cherishing black life. But also, people have been really good information gatherers for a long time. People have done reporting and, you know, incredible, just stunning reporting and research and writing and documentation and storytelling to make it very clear, for a long time, exactly what's happening in America. And I worry that people really overestimate what we can accomplish just through that kind of storytelling and how deeply entrenched this hatred and contempt is in ways that we, perhaps, are still not fully contending with. And furthermore, the part that we are not talking about enough is that - I'm always hesitant when I say that because, of course, there are always people having the right conversation, the good conversation.

But what many people are not talking about enough is that there's the other side of it, which is that if black people have been historically denied opportunities, jobs, resources, material wealth - if we've documented that, if we're now saying that that's not OK, that means that somebody else has to give something up (laughter). That means that we have to talk about wealth hoarding. We have to talk about the accrual of privilege. So that's the part of the conversation that I worry that we never quite get to. And things become really incendiary when we do.

GROSS: Is what you're talking about a form of reparations when you talk about the hoarding of wealth?

EWING: I'm absolutely talking about reparations. And I think that reparations can look a lot of different ways. I'm very proud, as a Chicagoan, of the reparations ordinance that was passed here for the victims of police torture. And something that's really inspiring about that ordinance - although, it does not do nearly enough because nothing can ever undo losing years of your life or losing your life or losing your dignity or the trauma of being incarcerated wrongfully or being incarcerated at all.

But what inspires me about that ordinance is that it was not only about monetary reparations, but also thinking about, how can we build new systems? How can we make sure that people in the communities affected by police torture have access to mental health resources? One of the things that was also required in the reparations ordinance here is that kids in Chicago public schools have to learn about the regime of police torture that happened here. And that's part of our history.

So yes, I am absolutely, 120% talking about material reparations. And I also think we need to think about what systems and structures we put into place to actually transform society and not only repair what is broken, but build something new and better.

GROSS: Well, I want to talk with you about systemic inequality in the schools. But first, we need to take a short break. If you're just joining us, my guest is poet and sociologist viewing. Her book of poems is called "1919." Her book about Chicago schools is called "Ghosts In The Schoolyard: Racism And School Closings On Chicago's South Side." We'll be back after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF AVISHAI COHEN SONG, "GBEDE TEMIN")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Eve Ewing, a poet and sociologist who teaches courses on race and education at the University of Chicago, where she is an assistant professor. Her book of poems, "1919," is a collection of poems reacting to a report written in 1921 by a commission appointed to investigate the 1919 riots in Chicago and come up with recommendations to prevent a recurrence. Her book about the closing of Chicago schools deemed under-resourced and underutilized is called "Ghosts In The Schoolyard: Racism And School Closings On Chicago's South Side."

So Eve, you have a book about racism in Chicago schools. You teach courses on education and racism. I'm wondering if you think one of the next steps after discussing systemic racial inequality in terms of how the police treat Americans, if you think the next step or one of the next steps needs to be addressing systemic inequality in our schools.

EWING: Absolutely. I think it's a concurrent step. And I think, you know, many people are familiar with the phrase school-to-prison pipeline. But many scholars, including myself, have moved towards describing it as what we call the school-prison nexus. And what we mean by that is that the same logics, the same systems that allow mass incarceration to happen, that allow policing to be a violent structure in our society, also operate within schools, particularly schools that serve low-income students of color, particularly schools that serve low-income black children.

And there are ways in which our school spaces become training grounds for the ideologies that we then see functioning in policing in the rest of our country. And that includes the idea that, you know, we need to control children's bodies. We need to discipline them through often harsh and punitive measures. We need to make sure that we have surveillance set up. And then, of course, the most obvious example is the presence of police in schools, which has become necessarily contentious in recent days, which, I think, is great and an important conversation. So yes, I think it's a next step. But in many ways, it's the same step to me.

GROSS: So you taught in a Chicago public school on the South Side from 2011 to 2013. It was a middle school. And it ended up being one of the schools that was closed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel because it was deemed under-resourced and underutilized. You know, these schools had fewer children in them than in the past. And that was, in part, because housing projects were torn down. Housing projects that had been home to a lot of children were no longer there. So the population of children attending the schools was smaller.

And so you would think, like, if these schools were under-resourced and underrepresented, why would parents and children be so passionate about saving the schools? There were three days of protests. I think there was a hunger strike by parents for one of the schools that was slated to be closed. And that's a question you try to investigate. If these schools are considered so bad, why are people so passionate about saving them? So tell us a little bit about what you found about why people were so passionate about not wanting to close these schools?

EWING: Sure. Well, you know, one thing that's important to note is that the historical context you just mentioned, which is, you know, the reason why the schools were underutilized, why they have very large capacity as buildings and didn't have kids filling that capacity, has to do with a lot of things, including the demolition of tens of thousands of units of public housing on the South Side and across the city. And that's something that was never - that's something I talk about extensively in the book. But it was never discussed by any policymakers, by any city leaders, by any school leaders at the time the closings were being announced. And so it really felt like gaslighting to me and to a lot of other people because the way in which it was framed was that the schools were just empty because families had made other choices or they had just chosen to go elsewhere. And there was never an acknowledgement of the historical conditions that pushed people into this public housing in the first place and then removed it from the landscape, which then caused public school enrollment to be depleted at a rapid clip in a very short period of time.

And then the other thing is that schools are really important in people's lives. Schools mean a lot more than just a place where you go to learn basic skills. And that is especially true, I argue in the book - if you are a person who doesn't have a lot of the resources that other people take for granted when it comes to wealth, when it comes to private property, when it comes to access to social services, the school takes on a magnified importance in your life because it's not just the place where you go to learn.

And we're seeing this, you know, during the entire pandemic. Schools are the front line for so many other things - for assisting young people that are homeless, for assisting young people that are experiencing abuse and neglect, for helping parents find the resources that they need to get education or to get jobs, for basic health care, you know? In schools, we test to see if kids need glasses. We test to make sure that kids don't need assistance with hearing, right? We make sure that kids have food. And then, also, in an unstable and uncertain world, schools are a source of stability for children.

They are a place where they have meaningful and deep social relationships that have lasted the entirety of their memorable lives, right? When you're 11 and somebody has been your friend since you were 5, that's your whole life, right? The teacher that you have learned to trust, these are really valuable and crucial and important social relationships that mean more to people than, you know, the percentage of their building that is filled, and that are really important in precarious social circumstances. So that's why people fight for their schools.

GROSS: And finally, how would you like to see the protest, the insistence that policing has to change, that we have to be aware of systemic racism within policing, how would you like to see that used, now, as a point of departure to just start to think more deeply about inequality in the schools? Like, what - do you see an opportunity here?

EWING: I think that conversations about police become contentious because policing represents really different things for two different classes of people. One class of people can rely on the police to protect them, to protect their property and to reinforce the boundaries of the social space that they've prescribed for themselves. And one class of people can rely on the police to terrorize them and cannot call upon them for safety, cannot call upon them for protection.

And I think that if we examine those power relations, that helps us also understand how schools function - that for some people, schools are, as Horace Mann said they were supposed to be, the great equalizer, a place where, you know, you can come in as a young person full of potential and know that the best of who you are will be celebrated and nurtured.

And for many young people in our country, schools are a place where the best of who they are is silenced, where the best of who they are is disciplined and controlled and eradicated. And I think that if we're willing to face that uncomfortable fact, and if we're willing to listen to people who have been most silenced, who have been most marginalized, we can get, hopefully, a lot further than we did in the last four centuries of trying.

GROSS: Eve Ewing, thank you so much for talking with us.

EWING: I'm overjoyed that I got to speak with you. Thanks, Terry.

GROSS: Eve Ewing is a sociologist who teaches classes on race and education at the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration, where she's an assistant professor. Her books include "Ghosts In The Schoolyard: Racism And School Closings On Chicago's South Side" and the collection of poems, "1919." After we take a short break, John Powers will review the reissue of a novel by Alfred Hayes, who John describes as one of our great writers about social and personal disillusionment. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROBBEN FORD AND BILL EVANS' "PIXIES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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