I think the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans was Hurricane Katrina,” Duncan said. “That education system was a disaster, and it took Hurricane Katrina to wake up the community to say that ‘we have to do better.’ And the progress that they’ve made in four years since the hurricane is unbelievable. They have a chance to create a phenomenal school district. Long way to go, but that — that city was not serious about its education. -Arne Duncan, 2010
Arne Duncan, someone I admire greatly, made a misstep in 2010 with his comments about Hurricane Katrina. We knew what he meant but those looking to skewer him at every turn went after him for it. And that was wrong. Betsy DeVos is in a similar spot this week after linking the creation of HBCUs to school choice. We know what she meant. But the swarm mentality that has taken over since the election of President Trump has left her in a pretty impossible spot. Even if she does or says the best and most right thing ever said or done, she will be vilified. A misstep immediately launches a reaction that is so over the top, it would actually be funny if marginalized students’ futures weren’t what was being drowned out by all the hyperventilating on Twitter.
I have to assume that when Duncan made the clumsy and controversial statement about Hurricane Katrina, he would have appreciated his predecessors not piling on and tweeting out hit pieces about him. And that is why I was surprised and disappointed to see him re-tweeting a slanderous hit piece by Slate that accuses Secretary DeVos of “celebrating segregation” and “praising Jim Crow.” Was he celebrating and praising the third deadliest hurricane in American history that killed more than a thousand people, most of whom were black senior citizens who drowned?
No, he wasn’t. And everyone knew that. He was making the very plausible case that the tragedy of Katrina was what set the wheels in motion for a long overdue educational rebirth in New Orleans.
Yesterday’s Slate article is just the most recent example of feigned outrage, where millions of people can get really loud and insulting in print and online without actually having to do anything in their real life to eradicate the -ism that has gotten them oh so riled up on social media. A lifelong champion for marginalized kids like Arne Duncan only adds fuel to the fire when he gives credence to irresponsible headlines and vicious claims about his successor.
Does he really want people saying that even Arne Duncan thinks DeVos is a Jim Crow sympathizer? I would guess that he does not. Just as he wouldn’t have wanted Margaret Spellings or Bill Bennett tweeting out to their followers that Arne Duncan rejoices in the drowning of black senior citizens.
What Did Slate Say? And What Did DeVos Say?
Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos commemorated the meeting with one of the more bonkers statements you will ever see a 21st century politician make, somehow twisting an attempt to bring up her pet issue of school choice into praise for the segregated higher education system of the Jim Crow South:
Inbox: @BetsyDeVosED statement on today’s meeting with HBCU leaders pic.twitter.com/J7SvKFjlcB
— adam harris (@AdamHSays) February 28, 2017
Slate goes on:
First of all, it sounds like a seventh-grader wrote this, which is perhaps what happens when you put someone who has never really had a real job in charge of the Department of Education. Second, this official 2017 federal government press release celebrates legal segregation (!!!) on the grounds that the Jim Crow education system gave black students “more options,” as if there was a robust competition between HBCUs and white universities for their patronage.
The inconvenient truth for all of us is that black children are still disproportionately kept out of the best K-12 schools in America. The folks at Slate know this because they did a story on it last March. A quick look at the numbers of black students at the top suburban schools, Stuyvesant in New York City, or the exclusive private schools that educate the children of presidents and Senators, tells the story of a system that is still segregated, a system that has marginalized poor children and children of color forever.
What have the folks at Slate done to bring about more equity in our school system? Are they rubbing elbows regularly with those they rise up to defend? Have they worked hard to strengthen our historically black colleges and universities?
While Arne Duncan has worked tirelessly around issues of equity for decades and continues to spend his days now working to empower black youth in Chicago, his record on HBCUs is not stellar. He has admitted that.
If we see more black students getting to and through college during Betsy DeVos’ tenure, she has done her job on this front. If HBCUs are better supported than they have been in the past, that is a win. If more parents feel empowered when it comes to their children’s education, we should celebrate that. If none of those things happen on her watch, she and the administration must be held to account. All the rest is just noise. But noise can be both distracting and damaging, especially when it’s being ginned up by those held in high esteem and seen as smart and influential leaders. I consider Arne Duncan to be a smart and thoughtful leader who has dedicated his life to helping kids. Nothing good comes from him peddling in the same garbage pieces that were unfair when they were written about him.