Opinion
Education Opinion

Shrewd as Snakes and Innocent as Doves

By Sara Mead — September 13, 2010 2 min read

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.

Events

School & District Management Webinar Examining the Evidence: Catching Kids Up at a Distance
As districts, schools, and families navigate a new normal following the abrupt end of in-person schooling this spring, students’ learning opportunities vary enormously across the nation. Access to devices and broadband internet and a secure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
School & District Management Webinar
Branding Matters. Learn From the Pros Why and How
Branding your district matters. This webinar will provide you with practical tips and strategies to elevate your brand from three veteran professionals, each of whom has been directly responsible for building their own district’s brand.
Content provided by EdWeek Top School Jobs
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
School & District Management Webinar
How to Make Learning More Interactive From Anywhere
Nearly two-thirds of U.S. school districts are using hybrid learning right now with varying degrees of success. Students and teachers are getting restless and frustrated with online learning, making curriculum engagement difficult and disjointed. While
Content provided by Samsung

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Special Education Teacher
Chicago, Illinois
JCFS Chicago
Communications Officer
Chattanooga, Tennessee
Hamilton County Department of Education
MS STEM Teacher
Woolwich Township, NJ, US
Kingsway Regional School District
High School Permanent Substitute Teacher
Woolwich Township, NJ, US
Kingsway Regional School District

Read Next

Education Briefly Stated Briefly Stated: January 13, 2021
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
8 min read
Education Obituary In Memory of Michele Molnar, EdWeek Market Brief Writer and Editor
EdWeek Market Brief Associate Editor Michele Molnar, who was instrumental in launching the publication, succumbed to cancer.
5 min read
Education Briefly Stated Briefly Stated: December 9, 2020
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
8 min read
Education Briefly Stated Briefly Stated: Stories You May Have Missed
A collection of articles from the previous week that you may have missed.
8 min read