In a One View essay published here last month [Property taxes and equity, Viewpoints, Dec. 11], I argued that we must stay centered in our empathy when discussing property taxes in Oak Park.
I support robust school funding, and since that funding comes through property taxes, I see those taxes as a means of supporting our community in general and young people specifically. I also pointed out that, too often, I hear advocates for property-tax restraint questioning others’ integrity and ethics. I hear coded racial language implying that a local official was only elected because she is a woman of color, or saying that property taxes should not increase because “inner-city” children won’t benefit from more educational spending. I argued that although I support maintaining and increasing school funding — via property tax increases if necessary — we can make a nuanced, empathetic argument for property tax increase or reduction.
On reading this column, some people thought that I was attacking Oak Parkers who are concerned about property taxes. They expressed their perception that empathy for students has been weaponized by the Oak Park school boards to justify tax increases, and that those taxes are pushing out elderly and middle-class residents.
Reflecting on my column, I think one key sentence that offended was, “I worry about whether those in our community who are most vehement in this debate are those who don’t need lower taxes, but want them, and are fine with achieving those lower taxes on the backs of others.” I can understand why some people felt I was insinuating that the people who are most dedicated to fighting property taxes do so out of selfishness and greed. It was not my intention that people who are struggling with property taxes, or are concerned about those who are, would feel attacked. And I had to reflect on why that happened.
I have been an educator for the past 17 years, and my primary work relationships have been with black and brown students in Chicago Public Schools and the adults who help them express their brilliance, even as society tries to hold them back. Because of racism and segregation, there is far too little empathy in our society for black and brown young people. And so when I step into mostly white, middle-class spaces like Oak Park, I am very attuned to criticisms, intended or not, of those young people.
In contrast, I don’t have direct experience of middle-class Oak Parkers who are truly challenged by taxes. My empathy for those students is highly developed, whereas my empathy for middle-class Oak Parkers is less-developed. But empathy, like love, is not an exhaustible resource.
In this dilemma, there are numerous people for whom we need to develop empathy — the black and brown students of Oak Park, the teachers in Oak Park schools, middle-class Oak Park taxpayers. The struggles of these groups are not equivalent, and sometimes we need to make challenging choices when the needs of different groups compete. Black and brown students are still marginalized and devalued by our educational system, whereas middle-class Oak Parkers are the comparative winners. And advocating for a more just world means that those of us with privilege and money need to give up some of what we have for others to receive their basic needs.
But more often than we realize, by staying centered in our empathy, we can find a way to advocate for a renewed community that truly sees all its members. In this case, that means a community that provides equity for its students and tax relief for those who need it.
Jim Schwartz is an Oak Park resident and an educator.