LL was doing some multitasking on Monday evening, listening to a D.C. Public Schools oversight hearing with one ear while finishing up some other work. Ward 8 Councilmember Marion Barry, on the dais that night, started into one of his usual tirades about Chancellor Michelle Rhee, and LL’s ears perked up when he started on a rant involving Iraq and Afghanistan.
That led to this tweet: “Marion Barry just compared Michelle Rhee to Saddam Hussein on the dais.” But a fellow livetweeter, @classic74, challenged that characterization, saying that Barry “was talking about the culture.”
Today, LL went back to the videotape to check what exactly Barry said. Indeed, Barry’s remarks were indeed about the culture, not about Saddam. But, in a way, they were even more telling.
Barry could not have distilled his worldview any more potently. Where Rhee—-for her well-documented faults—-holds as a base principle that children can learn regardless of whether they’re rich or poor, black or white, born east or west of the river, Barry is all about excuses.
His view of urban education is essentially deterministic—-that because the kids in his ward are born to poor, illiterate parents, that lets everyone off the hook when they don’t learn. Except for Rhee, because she doesn’t understand their “culture.”
To put a finer point on it, Barry says that the Korean-American Rhee—-who, he says, comes from a culture that’s “autocratic,” “dictatorial,” and “hierarchical”—-can’t possibly understand how to teach poor black kids. It’s a mission, he says, as futile as bringing democracy to Iraq.
Here’s what Barry said, verbatim:
I’m gonna raise a subject that I know is going to set off the Washington Post. We have a clash of cultures. We have a clash of cultures. Everybody that comes here talks about Michelle Rhee not including people, not being collaborative, not listening….
The reality is that this school system is 90, 92 percent African American, Latino American, and a small number of white students. Everyone knows that this country is a melting pot, but there are distinct cultures in this country. The African-American culture, because of our history and a lot of other reasons, has a distinct culture difference with non-white America. Latinos are the same thing. Does not mean that non-African-American, non-Latino cannot teach, cannot administer, but when the cultures are so great, Ms. Rhee comes from a culture…that’s autocratic, a culture that’s dictatorial, a culture of hierarchical in their discussions.
We see it every day in Iraq—-the American government trying to change a culture that has been totalitarian, that has been nonexclusive, that has been a police state. And we’re having a hard time now, after 10 or 12 years in Iraq, getting that culture shifted to democracy. We see it in Afghanistan, and so until we face that, we’re still going to have those problems.
I read the chancellor’s educational plan…It looks at though it was designed for Montgomery County, or Long Island, N.Y., or some other affluent county. It was not designed for Washington, D.C., for an urban area. Not designed for a city, a ward where 82 percent of the parents are single family in my ward, where 54 percent are in poverty….
You can’t teach a child to read when you can’t read yourself. You can’t teach a child values of respect if you don’t respect yourself. And there’s a lot of that going on around….We have to recognize this culture clash. Be ready—-the Washington Post is going to be going crazy….I’m raising reality on where we are.