As the school year ends one of the year’s most powerful lessons in racial hate speech comes from Chicago Teachers’ Union President Karen Lewis.
“Rich white people,” she proclaimed in a speech two weeks ago, “think they know what’s in the best interest of children of African-Americans and Latinos, no matter what the parents’ income or educational level.”
Lewis’ outburst is her reply to persistent calls for school reforms to improve student performance in Chicago.
The pressure is coming from the political left and right.
Mayor Rahm Emmanuel is calling for tougher teacher assessments, longer school days and closing schools with shrinking student enrollment.
He is also a big supporter of charter schools that are achieving better results than the traditional public schools. Charters, with flexibility to get around rigid union rules, held nine of the top ten rankings for all public schools in 2012.
Conservative school reform groups are also backing charter schools and even vouchers to give parents choices outside of the city’s troubled public schools.
The latest statistics show only 63 percent of Chicago public school student graduating in 2013 and that is an increase over recent years. Among the city’s 8th grade students 79 percent are not at reading level. Meanwhile, Lewis’ union has made Chicago’s public school teachers among the highest in the nation at an annual average of $74,839.
But the only school reform Lewis advocates is higher taxes on Chicago’s property owners and she describes it as a tax hike on upper-income whites. She also wants new taxes on all financial transfers as well as a commuter tax, which she concludes will principally impact, once again, the target of her anger, well-to-do whites.
Lewis, a black woman and highly educated Dartmouth graduate, also argued that the city’s white, Jewish mayor, Rahm Emanuel, his aides and the city’s “venture capitalists” are guilty of using “little black and brown children as stage props at one press conference while announcing they want to fire, layoff or lock up their parents at another press conference.”
According to Lewis these “rich white people” are ignoring the real source of poor minority student performance in Chicago’s public schools. She contends the source of school failure is “poverty and racism and inequality that hinders the delivery of an educational product in our school system.”
The problem with Lewis’ argument begins with one big racist lie:
Rich white people are not the only group of people concerned with the poor education being given to poor black and Latino children in Chicago’s public schools.
Her racial attack on “rich white people” dismisses the parents of black and Latino children as unthinking pawns, dolts mysteriously satisfied with the failing educational outcomes achieved by their children.
It is pure bigotry to say that minority parents are indifferent to their children’s education. This argument is a sad reminder of segregationist rhetoric used in the last century to argue against integration as the agenda of “outsiders” because southern “good” blacks know their place.
In Lewis’ argument black and brown parents accept academic failure for their children because they know the reality of high levels of poverty and the parents’ own poor academic background.
How insulting to minority parents. The truth is exactly the opposite.
Minority parents want their children to succeed to get out of poverty and bad neighborhoods.
They may not want to see their neighborhood school closed. But I have yet to meet the parent who does not want to see their child excel in school and use that education to go to college and beyond. And now Lewis is trying to intimidate caring white politicians and businessmen into shutting down any efforts to help those parents.
Lewis’ incendiary racial charges can’t obscure the facts of failure in Chicago schools or excuse the fact that the teachers in Lewis’s union are having a hard time achieving success with Chicago's minority public school students.
And Lewis cannot blame poverty since charter schools with 91 percent of their students are eligible for free or low-cost lunches and 60 percent are racial minorities.
The best that Lewis can do is to play to racial antagonism by lashing out at whites with the good will, political power and financial resources to expose her as the hidden hand behind a system that is crushing young people.
She is the one telling parents to swallow low expectations for their children. She is the one who does not believe that schools exist to educate. She is arguing that the school system’s primary purpose is to give out jobs no matter what happens to students.
Lewis is playing the same brand of racial politics used during the days of segregation to divide Americans and distract attention from injustice. The only difference in her case is that as a black person she thinks she can blind black and Latino Americans by attacking “Rich White People.”