OPINION: Our Current Authoritarian Moment Has Many Layers

Proviso teachers strike earlier this month outside of Proviso Math and Science Academy in Forest Park. | File 

Sunday, March 27, 2022 || By Michael Romain || OPINION || @maywoodnews 

According to a study published last year by the political scientist Robert Pape, the majority of people who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021 were middle-class white professionals not from rural America, but from suburbs that were experiencing an influx of Black and Brown people.

“When we look at the counties that the 716 people arrested or charged for storming the Capitol came from, where they live, what we see is more than half live in counties that Biden won,” Pape wrote in an article published in January in the magazine Foreign Policy.

“They do not mainly come from the reddest parts of America. They also come from urban areas such as San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, New York City, Philadelphia, Houston, and Dallas. But the key characteristic uniting them is that they come from counties where the white share of the population is declining fastest,” Pape added.

The facts, Pape wrote, dovetail with a right-wing conspiracy theory called “the great replacement,” the idea that “majority white populations are being replaced by minorities and that liberal leaders are deliberately engineering white demographic decline through immigration policy.”

My non-empirical hunch is that Pape’s analysis doesn’t just apply to whites who feel that their dominant status is being threatened.

I suspect that something similar is happening here in Proviso Township, where teachers in District 209 were on strike for more than 11 days before reaching a tentative contract agreement on March 23.

When I attended Proviso East (for two years before transferring to OPRF), it was overwhelmingly Black. I had entered high school after attending Garfield Elementary, where I could count on one hand the number of Hispanic students.

Twenty years later, D209 is about 60 percent Hispanic while the elementary school district that includes Garfield, District 89, is about 55 percent Hispanic. Importantly, the district’s academic flagship, the selective enrollment school, Proviso Math and Science Academy, is roughly 70 percent Hispanic.

My hometown of Maywood, known for blighted blocks of abandoned homes, is undergoing a quiet renaissance in home sales, with many (nowadays it seems most) of those homes being bought, renovated and inhabited by Hispanics.

Over the last two decades, the Black population in Maywood, and in Proviso Township more generally, has decreased by roughly a third and about 12 percent, respectively, while the Hispanic population in Maywood and Proviso has increased by more than 100% and 77%, respectively, according to census figures released last year.

“They’re taking over,” is a phrase I often hear among my Black family members, one of whom once effectively told me, in response to my stated preference for a Hispanic who was running to be Maywood’s mayor in 2013, “I’m not voting for him; they have to wait their turn.”

This casual xenophobia, which I’m not claiming is widespread by any means, is particularly pronounced among older Blacks, some of whom occupy positions of authority in Maywood and hold seats on local elementary and high school boards.

About three years ago, D209’s Hispanic superintendent resigned, leaving a vacancy at the top. After a national search, the school board settled on a Black man from Mississippi with a sketchy past, but who apparently interviewed well.

His hiring enflamed racial tensions between the school board’s three Black members and one of its two Hispanic members. The Black board members have claimed that the board’s sole Latina member has a prejudice against Blacks while she has alleged that her board colleagues and the superintendent are prejudiced against Hispanics.

The board president has said repeatedly that the board charged the new superintendent with the duty of drastically changing the district in order to achieve academic outcomes, but this mandate has meant chaos for students, teachers and families.

The superintendent, who left his old job (in the district where he was born and raised) after less than two years and in the middle of a pandemic, came into D209 and outsourced the IT department, halved the number of security guards in school buildings, eliminated deans, and gutted a range of building-level administrative and support staff in district buildings.

Meanwhile, he went on a hiring spree for overpaid central office administrators who rarely leave their fifth-floor C-Suites and, according to sources, sometimes have to be trained to do various jobs by lower-paid staffers.

These administrators average around $170,000 in pay — about $60,000 more than the state average — while the superintendent, who got a 5-year contract after his first year on the job, gets about $260,000 a year (along with a $6,000 car allowance). That’s in a school district where teachers (many of them with master’s degrees and decades of experiences) get paid an average of about $76,000 — about 30 percent lower than the roughly $87,000 average of neighboring high school districts).

The superintendent has also hired a slew of contractors from Mississippi and other out-of-state places to do local jobs here in Illinois and fired, with seemingly reckless abandon, anyone with a mildly dissenting opinion.

Meanwhile, school board members dine at expensive restaurants, with one having had a whole stadium named after her (it was, of course, the superintendent’s idea). Parents complained that while they received emails about the stadium dedication ceremony, they didn’t receive any district emails about parent-teacher conferences.

The superintendent even offered me a job once — over a phone call one night while slurring his words. How would I like to be making six figures doing communications with the district, he asked me. He said the district would also fund my newspaper (in a brazenly apparent attempt to mute any negative coverage).

Not long after that job offer, which I obviously rejected, I learned that a similar arrangement had apparently been worked out with the local paper in Holmes County, Mississippi, which is why I couldn’t find any hyperlocal news coverage of the superintendent’s time there.

Any criticism of this superintendent, who has cancelled bargaining sessions amid a historic strike and consistently refused to negotiate in good faith with teachers (whom he apparently looks down on with contempt), is taken by the Black school board members as an effort to “bring a Black man down” — a classic case of playing the race card.

When students across the district walked out of all three high schools last month in a show of support for their teachers, who had been working without a contract for close to a year, the school board president and superintendent claimed, with no evidence, that the walkouts were orchestrated by the Latina school board member, union leaders and parents from Westchester and Forest Park (i.e., whites).

I would not have imagined when D209’s current school board majority was voted into office several years ago that it would create this authoritarian dystopia in which two Black men, fueled by a Trumpian toxicity, would attempt to union bust, divide-and-conquer, and conduct dog-whistle politics amid a historic teachers’ strike.

In some important ways, the authoritarianism and the victimhood, exhibited by the D209 school board (particularly the board president) and the superintendent, mirrors what we’re seeing with whites across the country.

This is only my hunch, so don’t judge me too harshly, but it seems the most potent determinants of authoritarianism (aside from personality) may not be income level, educational attainment and employment status; instead, authoritarianism seems to be most pervasive among groups of people who have erstwhile monopolized (even if on a small scale) status, power and resources, and who feel that monopoly position threatened by another group.

That observation applies to white people storming the Capitol and Black people destroying a school district.

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