SMOKE AND MIRRORS: If 90% of the American public supported the outlawing of abortion, you bet your sweet zygotes that our elected officials would have it done. What’s so different about the background check?
Uh-huh. That’s right. I’m gonna deal with this today, because re-sharing this photo on Facebook didn’t make me feel any better. I shouldn’t write about it now because I’m really pissed off, and I always try to sleep on things I’ve written before I hit publish (or send, for that matter). I’m so pissed off about yesterday’s despicable senate capitulation to big money and the gun lobby. I’m pissed off even though I knew way back in December—about 13 seconds after I heard the death tally in the Newtown massacre—that nothing was going to change. It was this firm knowledge that was going to keep me from getting pissed off when today happened. I was supposed to shrug, sigh and move on. Bombing in Boston, Cowardly Congress, ho-hum, do these pants make me look fat?
But about 12 seconds after that grim announcement that 20 babies had been heinously slaughtered at the end of a weapon designed for warfare, I had a kernel of hope that, Hmmmm…maybe the obliteration of a bunch of (almost all) white children will finally tip the scales.
I quickly dismissed that sense of possibility. I’m a realist, after all. But the human spirit has a proclivity toward wishful thinking, an affinity for hope. It’s a survival thing, I think, an involuntary response to unbearable trauma.
Well. I attribute my anger tonight to that stupid fucking hope. That singular floating dust mite of ridiculously irrational, completely intangible bullshit that must have lodged itself somewhere deep in my body even as I’ve said, over and over again when discussing this topic, We will never change.
I knew. I knew nothing would come of the twenty murdered kids. If congress couldn’t make change after the gun was turned on one of its own (narcissists as they are, this—if anything—should have compelled them to act), why would a smattering of six-year-old body parts across a schoolroom have any impact?
Even as 90%— NINETYFUCKINGPERCENT!—of American people support background checks for gun purchasers: Nothing. 45 “nay”s (I’m not counting Harry Reid’s strategic vote) and our representatives stacked their papers, and straightened their ties and headed home for the night with their jobs and their pay checks and their free-health-care-for-life happily in tact. Shit we, as voters, bestow on them with the humble expectation that they, oh…I don’t know…represent the fuck out of us? That’s right. They represent us. Is 90% so loud as to be deafening?
Meanwhile, gun violence goes on and on, blahdeeblah, I wonder what shoes to wear to the gala on Saturday….
You know, black children die every day in America thanks to guns, and nobody in congress cares. It’s a fact of life. But congress doesn’t care about dying white kids either. It occurs to me that we may finally have undeniable proof of a level playing field. Are we supposed to be hopeful about that?
Look. 90% of Americans do not agree that we should confiscate all guns. Nor do 90% of Americans agree that we should ban automatic weapons, though I line up in that group, too. What 90% of American people do agree on, is the requirement of a background check for gun purchasers, not unlike that required to obtain a driver license. Or a passport. Or a child. Funny: You have to have to have a background check to adopt a child, but not to kill one. Any bonehead can do that. In fact, has done that. And will again.
Have you heard? Mitt Romney is kicking butt (that’s for you, PBS) and taking names when it comes to the white vote. According to this Washington Post article from late last week, he’s losing the Latino vote by enough to potentially cost him the election…but not if Latinos stay home while white folks storm the gates in favor of the agitated, sweaty shape-changer from last Monday’s debate. (Edited to add: This latest piece agrees, and mentions an “uncomfortable racial math” of this election. “We don’t want to see our politics divided by race going into the future,” says one CNN analyst whom I presume is not talking about the GOP.) And is Romney peeling off some of the Black vote? In 2008, Barack Obama carried 95% of the Black vote, but reports like this claim the number is slipping.
It makes little sense to me that this race is even close. But it is. And given how close it is, what is the GOP doing to push their guy over the edge? It certainly isn’t their opaque “5 Points Plan.” So what, exactly, are they doing?
I have one word for you: Cheating.
Since a candidate cannot win on the white vote alone, and since courting the brown vote hasn’t been a priority for Romney, Willard and his Grand Old Party are doing what they do best. Yes, the folks that will go to the mat over an American Flag lapel pin, and who will out-patriot any patriot in Patriotland by telling you exactly how patriotic they are, are disenfranchising voters of color.
In Arizona’s Maricopa County last week, Spanish language voter registration cards were sent out with the wrong election date. They claim only 50 cards had the wrong date, which makes complete sense, since there’s no way they would print, you know, 2 million election cards in bulk, right? Nah! You definitely run those off using your ink jet printer on an as-need basis!
Moving east, 140 of these beauties went up in African-American neighborhoods in Ohio and Wisconsin:
The Billboards were funded by an anonymous “family foundation” and are being taken down, thanks to some angry community members who knew that staying silent was to be complicit. These citizens helped Clear Channel—the company that owns the billboards—get over its Romnesia, reminding them about their policy that disallows anonymous funding of billboards. Another interesting tidbit: Clear Channel is co-owned by Bain Capital which is Mitt Romney’s former-ish company. If it smells like a rat…
Of course, we’ve been hearing all about the push for voter ID laws in myriad states across this country, a below-the-radar effort during the past two years to disproportionately target people of color even while right-wing supporters claim they are simply rooting out fraud. This is peachy coming as it does from those who know about voter fraud first hand. This anti-American effort to cut out the already disenfranchised in our society should be alarming to all of us, but especially so, according to the Center for American Progress, for women of color. Behold:
“Women of color stand at the crossroads of what is in essence a double disenfranchisement. When they are denied the opportunity to participate in civic life, they also lose the ability to voice their opinions and hold lawmakers accountable on the reproductive health issues that directly affect them.”
That’s a double-whammy, right there, if we inaugurate a President Romney next January.
And today, Race 2012 blogger Julene, pointed out a disturbing link between the anti-Obama ads running on BET and the overwhelmingly white make up of the board of directors of its new owner, Viacom. It’s sort of like white people owning the majority of black hair products on the market, only (no disrespect here, that is also a serious issue), it’s worse. It’s way worse. See the Tim Wise video at the bottom of my previous post for a primer about the age old divide-and-conquer method of disenfranchisement.
What I want to know is, when do the rest of us get outraged enough to act, like the people who forced Clear Channel to atone? When do we demand an end to this deviousness in our elections, and accountability and truthfulness and honesty in our political process? How bad do things have to get before all people, regardless of party affiliation, admit that these kinds of election shenanigans hurt all of us, individually and collectively and undermine everything that is good about—or should I say, anything that is left of—our democracy?
The time is now, people. The time is yesterday, today and tomorrow.
When I considered joining the cast of writers participating in the Race 2012 blogging project hosted by Monica’s Tangled Web, I had to think carefully about what it was I wanted to say as it pertains to race and politics. As the white parent of a Black child, I come to the table with a unique-ish experience; there are endless opportunities to write, dissect, present, discuss, address, argue, and advocate.
I should say here that race is a part of my life in a way that it isn’t for most white people who have the privilege of talking about race or, sadly, not talking about it. This is not an option for people of color, and it’s not an option for people who have adopted children of color, regardless of color. I wrote in June about an incident that led to a discussion with our young child about the N-word, a chat we realized should have had much sooner. It goes without saying that I don’t know one white family who has had this talk over breakfast. Just yesterday, we had the occasion to explain to our child what it meant to be tarred and feathered. Indeed, it is no easy task to look into the eyes of a child and describe a method of brutalization used against her people.
Not a single morning passes without me having contemplated race before I’ve had my first cup of coffee; I don’t pass the Hispanic woman cleaning windows at my gym without thinking about immigrants; I don’t thank the woman wearing a hijab, who bags my groceries, without thinking about bigotry; never do I kiss my daughter on her forehead at the end of the day without thinking about her future as a Black woman.
I am a member of the privileged white class whose numbers are dwindling (have you watched Race 2012 yet? How about America By The Numbers?). Still, white remains the barometer of all that is normal, the yardstick against which everyone of any other skin color is compared and like most of my white counterparts, I’ve had it easy. Thanks to my blended family, I’ve also had an awakening. I’ve always held the same fundamental beliefs, but before Ruby, I was a toddler on the spectrum of understanding. As a Black friend of mine lovingly likes to say, I’m now an angry Black teenager. I quite like that.
So. My problem writing each post for Race 2012 isn’t lack of topics or angles. Race issues always come back around to politics. One cannot watch our president on a stage next to Mitt Romney and not think about race and what that means to them. One cannot watch The Choice: 2012, a Frontline special on the candidates, and not see the struggle for identity that defines Obama, and the lack of a comparable experience in his opponent. To pretend not to see it, is to not talk about it. And not talking about it doesn’t help us move toward a more equitable and just America.
Fortunately, people are choosing to do it, even when it scares them. One of my fellow bloggers, Sarah Auerswald, wrote a very honest piece today about being afraid to talk about race, even as she has decided to blog about it. Writer Stephanie Spencer (not involved in this project, but someone who could be) also wrote a come-to-Jesus piece on her blog about becoming aware of her white privilege. The angst in both posts is palpable and relate-able and their willingness to admit their fears and failings as they confront issues of race is precisely what needs to be happening right now.
I said it in an earlier piece, that that the election of a Black president has provided inspiration for people of color all across this country. A friend of mine told me during dinner one night last month, that Obama has shown her son “that there is another way to be a Black man.” This is significant in ways that nearly defy description. But one of the greatest gifts bestowed on our country by the election of Barack Obama, has been the giant spotlight it has focused on racism, small and large. As it happens, having a Black man in the White House (which was built by slaves, by the way) has served to bring racists out in daylight, away from the shadows of political correctness and out from behind the armor of the long-accepted myth of colorblindness. Barack Obama may be reticent to talk about race—and for arguably good reasons: he’s damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t—but he’s been a great conduit for the rest of us.
People of color have been engaged in real talks about race for generations. It’s time white people started doing the same, even if it is scary and uncomfortable. I wonder: What are you doing reader, to talk about race in your life? Are you talking about? Are you fighting for justice and equality? Are you, too, in the angry black teenager stage? Because I’d like there to be more of us.
If you missed the premier of Race 2012 last Tuesday night, you can watch it again tonight when it is rebroadcast (check your local listing for air time). Or you can hunker down with your laptop and watch it right here:
In the spirit of the blogging project launched by Monica’s Tangled Web, I have to share an on-point piece from Jack & Jill Politics. I didn’t write this piece, but “Dear Black People: You Are Invisible and Irrelevant” captures some of my thoughts since watching the debates and then the PBS documentary. I have my own thoughts to add, but for now I’m stuck on Dear Black People. This part right here really struck me:
“These debates have taught me one thing. In the eyes of the debate organizers and most of the viewers, the plight of Big Bird is far more important than the plight of my people. “Binders full of women” are more important than prisons full of black people.”
Read that piece and then consider the dialogue that has engulfed our country in the wake of each debate. Put in such crisp perspective, it’s hard to deny that race is both a fundamental part of this election and also the thing that nobody wants to really deal with. Not the media, not the candidates, not the moderators, and not certain voters. I continue to shake my head at the notion of a post-racial anything. We are so far from where we need to be.
Last night, with my daughter on my lap, I watched the trailer for the PBS documentary, Race 2012: A Conversation About Race & Politics in America, which airs tonight at 10:00 p.m. in San Diego. (Check your local listings if you’re not here enjoying our extended summer.) It began with a montage of images of the crowd at Grant Park on the night of Barack Obama’s election four years ago, a rotating set of pictures set to Obama’s acceptance speech and the cheers that nearly made it impossible to hear. One photo after another showed Americans of all backgrounds in various states of disbelief and elation. Some wept, some hugged, some prayed. Many stood with mouths agape, faces to the sky, witnesses to a moment most of us never thought possible.
I remember that night with a more flat affect now. Intellectually, I can say, Yeah, that was an incredible night. But the visceral emotion of it isn’t always so accessible. Much of that enthusiasm and promise and, yes, hope, have been wiped away by the bipartisan struggles and disappointments that were inevitible. But director/producer Phillip Rodriguez made me feel it all over again, and more importantly, he made it impossible for Ruby to misunderstand the meaning of what happened that night.
And though she didn’t ask any questions until later in the trailer when Rodriguez illustrated how white people will become the minority in the very near future (“You mean, there will be more brown people in America?”), she sat curled on my lap, watching with so much intensity and concentration, a person looking in through our front window might have thought she was watching Finding Nemo.
Welcome. Bienvenue. Bienvenidos. This is the future. And millions of brown children just like her are learning from the first family, that there are other ways of being black than what our society has generally laid out for them.
Please watch the documentary and then visit the Facebook page—and any of the writers who are blogging about the program—and let’s talk about the changing political landscape in America. There is much to discuss, and the sooner we all get comfortable doing it, the better.
This post is part of the PBS election special, Race 2012: A Conversation About Race & Politics in America. Watch the documentary of the same name on PBS, October 16, 2012. Check your local listings for time.
The night after the first presidential debate, one of Mitt Romney’s top advisers, John Sununu, summed up Obama’s performance while speaking with Andrea Mitchell:
“What people saw last night was, I think, a president that revealed his incompetence, how lazy and detached he is.”
Just four days earlier, Newt Gingrich took a more dog-whistle-y and longer winded approach on Fox News (remark starts at 5:06):
“I’m assuming there’s some rhythm to Barack Obama that the rest of us don’t understand. Whether he needs large amounts of rest, whether he needs to play basketball for a while. I don’t watch ESPN. I don’t know quite what his rhythms are. But this is a guy who’s a brilliant performer as an orator, who may get reelected at the present date, and who frankly, he happens to be a partial, part-time president. He really is a lot like the substitute referees in the sense that he’s not a real president. He doesn’t do any of the things presidents do. He doesn’t worry about anything that presidents do. But he has enormous power in the White House and he’ll go down in history as president, and I suspect he’s pretty contemptuous of the rest of us.”
Both remarks got me to thinking a lot about microaggressions.
According to Wikipedia, microaggressions are the “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color.” These types of insults also impact women, persons with disabilities, and members of the LGBT community. Microaggressions can be verbal (“he’s a credit to his race”) or non-verbal (a woman clutches her purse as she passes a black man on the street), and according to Dr. Derald Wing Sue of Columbia University, though many microaggressions might appear to be compliments, “they contain a meta-communication or a hidden insult to the target groups in which it is delivered.” Dr. Sue offers a great primer about microaggressions and how you can combat them here. (Caveat: You have to suffer some fairly painful piano tinklings in the watching.)
To be sure, nothing about Sununu’s remark was complimentary; he brought his lazy-black-person stereotype out into the bright lights of an MSNBC studio, though he book-ended the slam between what could easily be characterized as two legitimate criticisms. Gingrich, on the other hand, disguised the very same message in “large amounts of rest” secret code; he tossed in the ubiquitous sports reference, and was non-plussed by Obama’s mysterious rhythm that “the rest of us don’t understand.” Then, in some diabolical pièce de résistance, he conjured the tap-dancer in blackface with the “brilliant performer” sideways compliment, before topping it off with calling Obama a fake, contemptuous president. Gingrich’s words are so breathtaking, they remind me how lucky we are that Mitt Romney won the GOP nomination.
Oh, but wait! There are those covertly recorded 47% remarks Romney offered to a small group of wealthy donors. We aren’t that lucky after all.
By painting Obama as a rhythmic, athletic, in-need-of-a-nap performer alien to the “rest of us,” Gingrich other-izes not just Barack Obama, but all Black people from (presumably) white people. Unlike many people who unknowingly employ microaggressions (they tend to “occur outside the level of consciousness awareness of the perpetrator”), Gingrich is nothing but calculated. With his carefully chosen words, Gingrich invited listeners to indulge their stereotypes and prejudices like Jim Jones invited his friends for afternoon punch. He and Sununu among others are purposefully using race-bait language to scare the bejeezus out of a whole bunch of white folk, people whose knees are already a-quakin’ over a perceived notion that they are somehow being marginalized. Isn’t that rich? And what could be more terrifying than facing the potential—if imagined—loss of your copious amounts of unearned white privilege?
For some people: Nothing.
And that prospect is what political operatives of the GOP are counting on as they resort to using racial stereotypes, pitting voters against one another, not to mention their self interests. This tactic is older than America (see the short Tim Wise piece at the bottom of this post) and is the ultimate Hail Mary pass for a party that doesn’t have a legitimate platform to bring in a win. So, with a wink and a nod, those on the right are reminding us, as frequently as they can, that the president is Black.
Indeed, someone is contemptuous of the American voters and I don’t think it’s the president.
Tim Wise on White Privilege:
It’s been 30 weeks since Trayvon Martin was shot and killed by George Zimmerman which, in media time, is a century ago. The constant stream of news has forced this tragic yet vitally important story out of the spotlight. Today, we have more important things to put above the fold, like the union-represented NFL referees and the universal reaction to the incompetence of the scabs who’d temporarily replaced them. To wit, the notoriously anti-union governor of Wisconsin, Scott Walker, was quick to demand that the union refs be brought back to work ASAP (one has to wonder if he’d have felt the same way if he didn’t have a skin in the game). And if you happened to watch Thursday night’s line-up between the Baltimore Ravens and Cleveland Browns, then you witnessed America embracing Walker’s position and welcoming the professional refs onto the field with a standing ovation. Funny that many of the same folks on their feet in that stadium last night also latch on to Walker’s attack on the teacher’s union like baby calves to a teat. I digress, though it’s all related.
Despite the shiny new headlines that mesmerize us each day, the folks over at The Root have been keeping an eye on the progression of the Trayvon Martin case, and today offered an update that includes the following:
Earlier this month George Zimmerman’s defense attorney, Mark O’Mara, issued subpoenas for Trayvon Martin’s school records, hoping to obtain information on the slain teen’s disciplinary issues, attendance and test scores.
It took all of .013 seconds to trip the alarm bells in my head.
As a vehement opponent of standardized testing—for a whole host of reasons, many of which fit perfectly into the Race 2012 discussion—the inclusion of test scores in this subpoena is especially troublesome. As far as I know, there was never a subpoena of test scores for James Holmes, the aspiring neuroscientist who went Rambo on a Colorado movie theater this summer. Surely, by the Zimmerman/O’Mara logic, his test scores would speak to his character and future behavior.
Or as victims go, what about the test scores of Natalie Holloway, the high school graduate who disappeared in Aruba one drunken night during her senior trip. Would her test scores exonerate her or her killer? Closer to home, what about scores for Chelsea King, a local girl who was violently murdered while out for a run during the day. Would her results explain why she chose to jog alone on a nature trail despite being told not to ever do that? Would we, as a society, ever blame these victims or the choices they made that lead to their own awful and unnecessary deaths? No, we would not. In fact, I feel like I’m treading on thin ice—sacred territory, if you will—by even mentioning either of these young women here. But it matters because this is about the other-izing of Trayvon Martin in a way that we don’t usually see when a victim or perpetrator is white.
Trayvon Martin wasn’t an educated white guy or a pretty white girl. He was a black kid in a hooded sweatshirt. He was an other. So let’s prove it with those test scores! Let’s use them to indict a dead kid for his own murder!
In all seriousness, I wonder what it is we are to learn from them. If his scores are low, do they mean Martin was a bad person? Do they mean he deserved to die?
Or do low test scores mean Martin wasn’t a good tester? Was disinterested? Disengaged? Disenfranchised? Do they mean his school serves a high-poverty population? Or employs not enough teachers? Or has a revolving door of new teachers? Or has textbooks published in the last century and not enough of them at that? Or: What if the scores are average? Or high? What if he was deemed “gifted and talented” by this test or another? Then what does that tell us about this boy who cannot defend himself because, regardless of test scores, he’s as dead as Holloway and King and the 12 people that James Holmes gunned down?
And as long as we’re looking at test scores, shall we have a peek at Zimmerman’s? What would his scores say about him?
These tests tell us nothing of value in this context, other than the request for them is more racial profiling (in this instance, beyond-the-grave racial profiling), the kind that landed Zimmerman in this situation to begin with. Using standardized testing, the choke-hold on public education in America, in this way cannot have any positive implications.
This is as polarizing an issue as any other current event this year; you could add to the item to the Obama-Romney debate roster and watch each side dig its heels in. What are your thoughts, reader?
Anyone with a grade-schooler knows that these semi-formed humans aren’t particularly forthcoming with information. The straightforward question, “What did you do in school today?” is often met with, “I don’t remember.” And my personal favorite, “Did you learn anything?” always comes up against, “Nope.” (To which I always say, “Good!” It’s become a family joke). This type of non-communication communication can be frustrating and makes it more challenging to have meaningful dialogue about important issues. Eyes glaze over if you don’t pick the exact right moment for the exact right conversation and even then, it’s best not to yammer on for too long. Drop pebbles, a wise therapist reminded me last summer. Regardless, it’s solid advice: Despite appearances, ripples have a more lasting impact than any dinner table keynote address.
Still, you can’t seize an opening unless you recognize it first. As my regular readers know, I’m the white adoptive parent of a black daughter, so opportunities for discussions about race are especially important (I would argue that they’re especially important in all families, but that is another post altogether). One way I’ve learned which topics are on the table is by paying close attention to the books Ruby chooses from her bookshelf each night before bedtime. Let’s face it: Clifford the Big Red Dog doesn’t fire up the synapses quite like, say, books about skin color or hair. Let me just add here that it’s been gettin’ deep up in these parts lately, as we’re frequenting the worlds of Dr. King and Ruby Bridges. The versions we read have been adapted to age appropriate form, but each subsequent reading leads to bigger, harder talks. Last Sunday night at lights out time, I tickled Ruby’s back while answering her question about what might have happened to her had she stopped to drink out of the wrong water fountain during the Jim Crow era. That pebble was more like a river rock. And I’m not going to lie: I feel like there’s an anchor weight attached to my heart every single time I lift that veil.
On Tuesday, October 16, PBS is going to air Race 2012: A Conversation of Race and Politics In America, and I’m honored to be included amongst a group of bloggers who—while following Monica Medina‘s lead—will spend the next six weeks writing about race and America and our upcoming election. The goal is to supplement the documentary, to prolong and further a very necessary, but not-terrifically-easy conversation. But have it, we will. I hope you’ll join the dialogue in the comments section here or on Facebook or on any of the other bloggers‘ sites.
Last thing. When I look at that banner up there, I can’t help but picture it as it applies to me personally. If it were my motto, it could just as easily read RACE 2005, or RACE 2006, or RACE 2007,…and so on, because I live this discussion every single day. So get ready. I just may hurl some pretty big stones. I’m strong and not at all afraid of making waves.
Following my two posts (here and here) on opting out of standardized testing, I have received numerous emails from educators. With permission, I am going to start posting them here, sometimes including whole emails and other times just excerpts. Because these people have much to lose, I’m removing identifying information and changing names to protect the letter writers. These voices are being discounted and demonized. And yet, these are arguably the most important voices for parents and policy makers to be hearing right now.
And so, here you go:
Aaryn,Just wanted to say thank you so much for what you’re writing about high stakes testing. I applaud your decision to extricate your kids from it.I will disclose at the outset that I am a public high school teacher [...]. I appreciate that you’ve done your homework and understand what’s really behind so much of what is called “reform” and “accountability.”This all plays out in the classroom in ways even more crazy than people suspect. Here’s one example: I work for a high school district [redacted] that prohibited novels in the language arts classrooms for several years. We were told that since the standardized tests were made up of multiple choice questions and short reading passages, time spent reading literature would be time taken away from appropriate test-readiness activities and therefore an inappropriate use of instructional time. (I was “written up” for teaching The Great Gatsby to high school juniors in defiance of this curriculum mandate)And all of this takes place while I watch closely the rich humanities curriculum prepared for the children of privilege. (My wife teaches at [a private school]). The so-called “achievement gap” is quite small when compared with the “exposure to culture and art” gap that has widened obscenely since NCLB. If this all continues apace public school kids not exposed to literature at home will read and write only well enough to fill out a credit application so that we can inflate the next wealth-transferring bubble. (See “College, Inc.” documentary of PBS Frontline)Thanks again.Nick Carraway
Last night, I drove over to the Shiley Auditorium on the beautiful campus of USD to hear Michelle Rhee talk about education reform, or as it should more aptly be called when it comes to Rhee, “reform.” San Diego was the first of five stops she is making in California as part of what she called a listening tour, or as it should more aptly be called when it comes to Rhee, a “listening tour.” But I’ll get to that in a minute.
I had planned to tweet the event, despite the signs that said “no texting,” but then I couldn’t get a signal on my phone. The conspiracy theorist in me thinks there was a jammer involved. After all, this was a university campus and I have a smart phone. But my friend, Grant who sat with me, laughed at the notion. He claims to be cynical, but perhaps he’s not cynical enough.
The un-tweetable event was touted in our local paper as “a series of education forums with California mayors,” so it didn’t seem outrageous to expect a conversation between Rhee and San Diego’s newly-svelt and rather handsome Mayor Jerry Sanders. But following a short welcome by Scott Himmelstein of the slippery San Diegans 4 Great Schools—the “grassroots” organization that would like to see four private citizens appointed to our elected school board—Mayor Sanders only offered a brief introduction before disappearing. His dinner was probably getting cold, as the event began 45-minutes later than scheduled.
So: No conversation with San Diego’s mayor. Instead, Rhee shared the stage with three non-mayoral panelists: two young and well-liked teachers who have each repeatedly experienced the annual pink slip, and a parent named Sally Smith who was clearly waiting for Michelle Rhee to up and walk on water. Her fawning made me avert my eyes, but the teachers were compelling.
(It should not be overlooked that there was another mayor present. The mayor of Sacramento, Kevin Johnson, emceed the evening. But Aaryn, you may ask. Why was the mayor of Sacramento emceeing the Michelle Rhee “listening tour” in San Diego? Well that is an excellent question! Johnson is Michelle Rhee’s husband, a notable nepotistic fact given that Rhee and her organization—innocuously dubbed Students First—are elbowing their way into the California education morass. Aye, the rabbit hole is twisty. Johnson was a one-man cheerleader for his wife, the head Rheeleader if you will, interjecting an emphatic “awesome!” every time it was his turn to talk. He excitedly pointed to the audience as proof of how many people support his wife and her “reform” movement. Speaking of which, I did nothing more than RSVP for the event and was subsequently counted amongst their 900,000 supporters. Be cautious of numbers coming from Rhee.)
Aside from the delay at the beginning—which Johnson claimed was due to the large number of people trying to get in; it is difficult to fill a theater before curtain time, after all—the event was carefully orchestrated. Students of the teacher panelists were escorted to front-of-house reserved seats to the left and right of the stage. The front section was reserved for important grown-up revelers escorted in moments before the show started. Hmmm…could it be possible that the presentation started late because Rhee was in a meet-and-greet with powerful donors? No. No. It must have been the rest of us on-timers patiently waiting for the show to start.
When it did finally begin, the Marshall Middle School Chamber Choir plucked at heart strings like little angels when they sang a moving rendition of “God Is Watching Us” (you can hear it at the end of this post). They followed it with Jay-Z’s “New York,” and drove home the adorable factor when a little Asian boy with spiked hair sang the lead. It was contrived, for sure, but effective. I swallowed tears because a) the kids were so damned good and b) so damned lucky to have a music program. Unlike the kids at my daughter’s school where there isn’t even a locker room for them to change for PE class, let alone a middle school chamber choir. Unspoken message: It’s good to attend a school in Scripps Ranch.
After a short speech by Michelle Rhee and anecdotal stories from the women who joined her on stage, the listening part of the “listening tour” began. The AV folks brought microphones to three pre-selected audience members, because nothing says I’m-listening-to-what-you-all-have-to-say like choosing the voices you want to hear. Rhee knows she can’t be held to account if she doesn’t allow a real conversation.
Teacher Kathleen Gallagher said teachers and administrators in schools are at fault because they “don’t monitor the quality of instruction” in their schools. She said that “kids are bored out of their minds” and that teachers “need to be more accountable.” She didn’t mention the dreadful curriculum foisted upon teachers, designed to prepare children for testing, but her point was applauded. Shelli Kurth introduced herself as a parent of two kids and went on to say that “nobody wants to have the conversations that are uncomfortable.” I assume she wasn’t talking about the role of poverty in our education system. Another thing she wasn’t talking about during her staged moment at the mic, was that she is a co-founding member of Up for Ed, a local organization that sponsored the event. A little disclosure goes a long way. Finally, Christopher Yanov of Reality Changers spoke of the need for high expectations. His group is a non-profit but recently launched a for-profit “new social enterprise” called College Apps Academy. The association, to me, is curious. Also included were two similar audience questions written on note cards, selected by staff and read by Johnson. Generally speaking: What do we do now? Rhee’s answer: Join Student’s First. Awesome!
Of course, Rhee spoke of her time as the Chancellor of D.C. schools, citing dizzying statistics about her successes. She talked about once visiting a failing school where “kids were throwing desks out of windows” with “papers flying everywhere.” Sounds like fast times, to me. She then revisited later only to find the kids were “in uniforms, with shirts tucked in, ready to focus.” She did not mention the cheating scandal that resulted from her tenure. Rhee said that “schools need to be more welcoming to parents” and described the laziness of front office workers she witnessed “chatting on their cell phones” and “getting a cup of coffee,” instead of happily attending to “clients.” She said they needed to “smile” when parents come to visit a school. I know the office workers at my child’s school don’t have a lot to smile about right now given the prospect of their ever-increasing workload and always-pending lay-offs. And Rhee plugged a new feature film coming out in the spring, “Won’t Back Down,” as the counterpart to “Waiting for Superman,” which she and her husband cited several times during the one-hour-and-fifteen minute event as proof of something good. Never mind that much of it has been debunked as false.
And that was it. Rhee and her non-mayoral panelists fielded five vetted comments from an audience of several hundred. To be sure, much of what was said was the right stuff to say; the stuff many parents agree on: That kids should come first, that we need to get rid of the last-in/first-out policy, that all is not equal, that parents need to be at the table, that we all want something better for children in this city. But what wasn’t discussed—at all, nary a breath—were the solutions for which Rhee advocates. Solutions that continue to rely on standardized, high stakes testing as a legitimate and equal measure of all children; of test scores being used to determine a teacher’s effectiveness; the desire to dismantle the teacher’s union; the effort to close and privatize schools; the move to lift caps on how much public funding goes to charters.
It didn’t appear that Rhee wanted to talk about any of this last night. Then again, she was here to listen.