I said, as I have before, that I believe her policies are racist and colonialist. That she is a "reductionist" regarding minority children, wanting (as Teach for America and KIPP do) to give them only the basics, to refuse to offer them the kinds of education offered to middle class white kids.
Rhee's own words: '"People say, 'Well, you know, test scores don't take into account creativity and the love of learning,'" she says with a drippy, grating voice, lowering her eyelids halfway. Then she snaps back to herself. "I'm like, 'You know what? I don't give a crap.' Don't get me wrong. Creativity is good and whatever. But if the children don't know how to read, I don't care how creative you are. You're not doing your job."'
As I've said before, when I see this stuff in Scarsdale, NY, Greenwich, CT, River Forest, IL, etc, I'll accept that it's a good educational strategy.
But Cleo Cherryholmes, an educator par excellence, as we say, challenged me with the opposite tack. Impoverished minority kids need to learn "to be white" as Rhee insists. They must learn how to speak the English, and behave in the way, that will get them hired by, as Cleo said, "Goldman Sachs." Cleo is a pragmatist, he wants actions which can prove the theory.
"Wait," I said, "still colonialism, still the powdered wigs for Nigerians and Indians so they could become Brits." And, I added, "there's a counter-narrative, an anti-colonial narrative."
Bank of America (then Bank of Italy) was founded in San Francisco so that immigrant businesspeople did not have to learn perfect English or climb the Anglo power structure.
I called this, "The Bank of America Narrative." I was going to say, "The Black Panther Narrative," but I'm working on getting better at this politics thing.
The "Bank of America Narrative" is the way the Irish and Italian immigrants "became white" in America. Italian immigrants built their communities and their economic well-being by deliberately not "being white." Whether through various "mob" enterprises or through the Bank of America - founded as a place where those speaking Italian and functioning in "non-American" ways could still do business and succeed, Italians went their own route until they could join the American economy as equals. They even followed the lead of their Irish precursors in keeping their children away from the white, Protestant public schools - sending them instead to Catholic schools where priests and nuns spoke the way the community did.
The immigrant Irish refused to send their children to "white" public schools, to learn "white" ways of speaking, acting, and praying. They organized their communities and took power on their own terms.
As the Irish had refused to become Protestant or give up their accents (see any NYPD officer circa 1945, 100 years after the great migration began), the Italians did the same. Unlike the Irish the Italians were more business oriented, while the Irish had seized control of big city politics and government jobs, Italians built a huge array of commercial enterprises, but the effect was the same. They were recognized as "white" when they could buy their way into the American society. They didn't want to be "hired by Goldman Sachs," rather they built Bank of America and became police commissioners and mayors across the nation.
This is the opposite of the African-American experience in the United States. African-Americans have always sent their children to white controlled schools. Integration just made that more so. A mass of Black children dropped into completely unchanging, non-adaptive, schools designed for and around white Protestant children - judged by white teachers and administrators, and almost always judged as inferior because they were not "white enough."
This is Gramsci's "Cultural Hegemony" at work. African-Americans can only succeed in education by becoming "as white" as possible. Of course this is also British Imperialism, Indians, Irish, Nigerians, South Africans, Malaysians trying desperately to be "white enough" for full British citizenship, but always, obviously, falling short in this impossible task. It is this very form of integration that the Irish and Italian immigrants to America refused to engage in. And, at least in one place, the Historically Black Colleges and Universities, true, culturally connected African-American-controlled education has demonstrated its success as well.
Yet the prevailing wisdom today is that African-American and other troubled minorities can only climb the American success ladder by being second-class whites: by letting whites set the bar in all things - in speech, in literature, in governance-style, in social mores. Michelle Rhee believes it. Joel Klein and Mike Bloomberg believe it. Paul Vallas believes it. Arne Duncan believes it. Unfortunately, in my opinion, there are black leaders who believe it as well. But, my Gramscian thought, is that you can only believe this if you believe that Black culture is inherently and historically inferior. And I don't believe that.
"The counter-narrative matters," I told Cleo, who smiled, as he does when he thinks we have argued well, because so many today insist there is only one way for minority groups to succeed. It is important because African-Americans, even African-American leaders, have forgotten the message of the Black Panthers, who insisted on self-help and self-defense, pride, belief in possibility, community organizing, and community intradependence.
This counter-narrative suggests that we need not force minority students to learn to march and chant (KIPP), we need not "just" give them white role models to copy (Teach for America), we need not deny them the creative education all children deserve (Michelle Rhee, Joel Klein, Paul Vallas, Arne Duncan). Rather, we can help them take control of their communities and their lives within the context of their own culture.
Which is what I had to say about why I call Michelle Rhee a racist.
And then we went back to discussing Pedagogical Pleasures, which was far more entertaining.
- Ira Socol