The Politics of School Desegregation in Oak Park, Illinois GCP-00-1

Evan McKenzie
Associate Professor of Political Science
University of Illinois at Chicago

Abstract
Oak Park, Illinois, has more than 30 years of experience with policies expressly aimed at maintaining an integrated community. The policies address issues in housing, education, public safety, and economic development that policy makers believe contribute to resegregation. In this working paper, I examine the area of education, focusing on the enrollment trends, areas of controversy, and public policies that have emerged in Oak Park over the last 30 years. Oak Park’s school desegregation efforts in 1976 and 1987 accomplished their intended purpose, which was to promote racial balance among the neighborhood elementary schools. But new disparities have emerged in the years since. I present data covering 1979 to the present, showing significant and growing racial imbalance in the district. Changed circumstances have altered the prospects for future policy interventions to maintain school integration.

Despite the effectiveness of previous desegregation efforts in Oak Park, there is serious question whether such interventions will be undertaken again. The most significant divergence in support for integration maintenance may be among middle class, educated, involved citizens– Oak Park’s policy elite. This elite is more ideologically liberal than in years past, and has expanded to include a significant number of black elected and appointed officials, journalists, and other influential citizens. Those who question the need for school desegregation are well educated and familiar with contemporary issues in American politics. Their views of Oak Park politics are not derived from purely local experience, but are heavily influenced by the national discourse over race relations. That discourse is highly conflictual, ideological, emotional, and sensitive to the symbolic dimension of politics and policy. By contrast, Oak Park’s local politics, where integration is concerned, have historically been relatively nonpartisan and highly pragmatic, being focused on non-ideological local solutions to concrete issues.

The advocates of integration maintenance are still speaking the language of pragmatism, but they are now being met with rebuttals saying, in effect, that proposals to achieve racial balance in the schools through public policy have the potential to make black people feel negatively about themselves. It may be possible to resolve the existing impasse over school desegregation in Oak Park by taking advantage of a new Leadership Council process to let a new pragmatic consensus come into existence that addresses both the emotional and rational dimensions of public policy.

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