Melissa Harris-Perry devoted an eight minute segment of her January 26 MSNBC show to the question of whether the current wave of public school closings, indisputably concentrated in poor black and brown communities across the nation, was racist. She had four panelists on the segment, only one of whom seemed connected to and knowledgeable about the issue, a New York City parent.
They batted the thing around, and all pretty much agreed that it was a dirty shame, a tragic waste closing hundreds of public schools in places like New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, destructive to most ideas of community, and that yeah, it probably was indeed racist. Harris-Perry called it an “epidemic” of school closures. She noted that neighborhoods identify especially with their high schools, and closing them violates the integrity of communities.
Both Harris-Perry and the NYC parent activist brought up the proliferation of high-stakes tests which judged urban teachers and students as “failing” thus providing some of the immediate justification for the school closings, though this was something the discussion passed over rather than dwelled upon. The NYC activist declared that she and the Save Our Schools Coalition intended to be in DC during the coming week to press for recognition of the fact that school closings were racist, ask for a meeting with the president and for a national moratorium on school closures.
What Harris-Perry and her panelists failed to do was explain exactly ---- or even vaguely --- what's causing these racist school closures that are wrecking communities. Labeling them “racist” describes only a single symptom of the “epidemic” while telling us nothing about its cause. The host and panelists didn't mention the Obama administration's signature Race To The Top Program even once. For a show whose Twitter handle is #nerdland, this is a pretty significant omission.
The fact is that high-stakes testing is being forced upon states and school districts by the Obama administration as part of its Race To The Top Program. RTTT awards funding to states and school districts on the basis of four criteria --- (1) school transformations and (2) school turnarounds, in which large numbers of staff are fired and “run the school like a business consultants brought in to tie teacher salaries tightly to test scores, (3) school restarts in which public school facilities are handed over to charter operators, and (4) school closings. RTTT guidelines were written in the first place by consultants from the Eli Broad, Walton Family, Gates, and other self-interested foundations which have spent tens of millions promoting charter schools and educational privatization.
Harris-Perry is far too intelligent not to know that Obama's Race To The Top policies are deliberately, not accidentally driving the wave of school closings, or that President Obama is deep in the pocket of the charter school sugar daddies. She knows too that there are deep connections between the money spent on the warfare state and bank bailouts and the money available to support public education. And she's well aware that nobody's career has ever been harmed by supporting the policies of a sitting president, no matter how vile (or even racist) those policies might be.
The black political class, based as it is on the fiction that it “represents” an underprivileged minority defined by race, is perfectly willing to entertain a shallow discussion of whether school closings are “racist.” But explaining to her audience where the pressure for high stakes testing, for school closures, for teacher firings, for turning public schools into profitable low-cost holding tanks are coming from --- if it means disagreeing with the First Black President, it ain't gonna happen.
If corporate school reform was something Republicans and Democrats disagreed on --- if elected Republicans were doing it and elected Democrats were against it, Melissa Harris-Perry might see fit to focus real intellectual wattage on the subject, and truly inform her audience. She and her guests have no trouble cackling at evil Republicans. But when the evil is bipartisan, and a black Democrat in the White House, her career is more important than the truth. She knows the microphone and the audience ain't hers either, it's MSNBC's. If she doesn't tow the line, maybe they'll give Michael Eric Dyson a show instead, he'll know how to stay in his lane.
Like boxers instructed at the beginning of every fight to “protect yourselves at all times”, MHP knows her obligation is to protect the Democratic party elite, and the president, and to protect millions of voters who supported Barack Obama and his party from knowing what they really voted for. In this case that meant drawing attention away from the charter school profiteers and sugar daddies, and their intimate ties with this president, his secretary of education, and a whole layer of Democratic and often black politicians. So where the lead story on school closings should have on what's causing the public school closings, who's pushing and profiting from the public school closings, who is resisting those forces and how we can stop school closings and protect public education, Melissa Harris-Perry buried that lead. She just pronounced it all a hot racist mess, and hosted a rambling and pointless discussion about an “epidemic” without pointing to preventions, treatments or cures. What a waste.
*Bruce A. Dixon is managing editor at Black Agenda Report and a member of the Georgia Green Party. He lives and works in Marietta GA, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org