I’ve been hearing a lot of snarking and worse from ed reform types about a recent column, by the Washington Post‘s Colbert King, on race in the D.C. Mayoral election and the gap between Chancellor Michelle Rhee’s generally strong approval among white D.C. voters and her low poll numbers among African Americans. My friend Kevin Carey declared that “Colbert King Officially Loses It,” while Whitney Tilson called the column “sleazy,” “despicable,” and accused King of “playing the race card.” I don’t think all that much of the column myself, but do I think Kevin, Whitney, and other are missing an important point in their rush to vilify King.
It’s certainly easy to read this paragraph as “playing the race card":
Underlying the dislike for Rhee is the suspicion that her education reforms -- blessed by Fenty -- are part of a well-calculated strategy to weed out African Americans from positions in the public school management and classrooms, thus making the schools more acceptable to the city's growing number of well-off white people.
And, to be clear, I think the point of view described therein is off-base. But readers who simply dismiss this statement as race-baiting miss the fact that King is describing a real phenomenon that exists in D.C., independent of anything he writes or doesn’t write about it. Anyone who’s paying attention to the D.C. Mayor’s race should go immediately and read this blog post by Matt Yglesias about that dynamic. If Fenty loses the D.C. Mayoral election tomorrow, it will be interpreted nationally as a vote against the education reform agenda Rhee has come to represent. But in fact the causes of a Fenty loss, should it occur, will have a lot less to do with Rhee or education than with the larger dynamic Matt describes, which is hardly unique to education, but extends to virtually any quality of life issue in D.C. and is particularly pronounced in debates about development, transportation, and housing.
Education reformers can dismiss talking about that dynamic as “playing the race card” or “putting adult jobs before the needs of kids” but that doesn’t change the fact that the dynamic exists, that it has legitimate roots and branches deeper and wider than just education, and that education reformers need to figure out how to productively engage and deal with it, rather than just dismissing or criticizing it.
In general, education reformers do well to heed Jesus’ advice to his disciples to be as “shrewd as snakes and innocent as doves.” When it comes to matters of race and class dynamics and education reform, that means not ignoring or dismissing, but working to truly understand the complex histories of race, power (and disempowerment), and class is urban communities, and also making the effort not to do things that inadvertently inflame them to no good end. Saying, “education is the civil rights issue of our time,” while ignoring the long history of and ongoing denials of civil rights to District residents and the role they play in shaping perceptions of education reform initiatives, is not shrewd.
The opinions expressed in Sara Mead’s Policy Notebook are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.