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From Education Next Editors, Cover Sparks an Apology and a Defense

By Mark Walsh — March 05, 2015 2 min read
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Michael J. Petrilli, an editor of Education Next, has apologized for tweeting out the new cover of the journal in a way that was meant “to provoke a reaction with an image that I should have known was going to anger and hurt others.”

But Paul E. Peterson, the editor-in-chief of the right-leaning education reform magazine, was firmly unapologetic about the cover itself, which features an African-American family in a takeoff on the painting “American Gothic,” but with the father fading from view.

The issue includes a multipart package on the 50th anniversary of the Moynihan Report, which (to oversimplify) detailed the then-rising percentage of black children being raised by single mothers.

Peterson, a professor at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, noted in an introduction to the issue posted Wednesday that the 1965 report by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who was an assistant U.S. labor secretary at the time and later a U.S. senator from New York, was the subject of controversy because of its conclusions about the conditions of black families.

“It is a perhaps a sign of the times that a smaller version of this controversy has now bubbled up around Ednext‘s Spring issue,” Peterson wrote. For some critics, “the family should have been white, or Hispanic, or inter-racial, or anything other than African-American,” he wrote.

“Of course, it is true that single parenthood is not the prerogative of any one racial group,” Peterson continued. “And it is true that single parenthood seems to be equally bad for children of all racial groups. But it would be disrespectful of Moynihan’s original contribution to illustrate a reconsideration of the report entitled ‘The Negro Family’ on its 50th anniversary with a portrait of a family from another racial background.”

Meanwhile, Petrilli, one of several executive editors of Education Next, responded on Wednesday to an outpouring of Twitter reaction to the cover image.

“I first saw the cover about a week ago, when a hard copy landed in my inbox,” wrote Petrilli, whose main job is as the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education think tank in Washington. “I knew right away that it would be controversial and wondered out loud to some friends and colleagues whether it crossed the line. (More on that another day.)”

“But I love to mix it up, so I went ahead and sent two ill-considered tweets,” Petrilli added. One tweet suggested that Chris Stewart “isn’t going to like this.” Stewart is an African-American education reform advocate whom Petrilli had communicated with about the topic of single-parent families.

In his second tweet, Petrilli merely asked his followers to weigh in on whether they found the cover image provocative or inappropriate.

“Well, all hell broke loose,” Petrilli said in his apology note on the Fordham Institute’s blog.

As I reported on Wednesday in Education and the Media, some found the image racist and an inappropriate representation of single-parent families in 2015.

“Your cover is perpetrating blatant ugly fraud about Black fathers/families,” wrote one respondent, Melinda D. Anderson.

Petrilli cited other reactions, and then said, “I am sorry that I sent those tweets. I am particularly sorry that I sought to provoke a reaction with an image that I should have known was going to anger and hurt others. That was stupid and insensitive of me.”

“What struck me as an ‘interesting controversy’ was, of course, to African-Americans, something deeply personal and painful,” Petrilli added. “Prejudice and stereotypes are not to be treated flippantly.”

A version of this news article first appeared in the Education and the Media blog.