Thursday, March 10, 2011

Richard Whitmire Can't Dodge His Own Racism

When I first heard that someone named Richard Whitmire had published a hagiography of Michelle Rhee, that was funded by the same disaster capitalists who had purchased her disastrous education reform policies, I shrugged. There's already so much propaganda on this out there already, what's a little more?  It's probably nothing different from what members of Washington Post editorial staff had already written. What's another journalist taken in by Michelle Rhee? 

Then, I read that he had given a talk about The Bee Eater at the DC bookstore Politics & Prose where he insulted the attendees and refused to answer their questions. So tacky, I thought. That guy's got no class. 

Next, I read Richard Kahlenberg's sharp critique of the book in Slate. Whitmire responded rather huffily and defensively, regurgitating his questionable research. Kahlenberg responded to his response, and Whitmire again to Kahlenberg. What a Brainy Smurf this Whitmire is, I thought. Isn't this what happens when you get a book published--people read it and then write reviews? Why not just ignore them, as most other authors do? Whitmire must really be a true believer or too proud to admit to any mistakes in his work, I thought. When will Hefty come by and chuck him over towards the bushes?

Then, there was this whine-fest in Education Week where he trivialized Ms. Rhee's mistakes and called her critics "birthers." Birthers? I thought. Hahaha! This guy is getting desperate. What a dumb analogy!

Finally (or perhaps not, knowing Brainy), I came across this brazen (and I mean, b-ray-zen) piece on the Huffington Post. I stopped cringing and started seething. It is truly one of the most despicable things I've ever read about race and DC politics and DCPS. It's so awful, I could cry.

Whitmire wags his finger at education reformers, admonishing them not to "duck race issues." African American Washingtonians' "fears of experimentation" were justified. What's wrong with saying that? Well, it's not nearly the beginning or end of what he says. According to Whitmire, Rhee and Fenty should have paid heed to the "fears" of African Americans, but not because there were any actual race issues during Rhee's tenure. Racism in DC is all done now--all that racism and "experimentation" is history and happened 1960s and 1970s. According to Whitmire, black people in DC perceived racism under Rhee, but it was all in their over-sensitive, incompetent little heads.

According to Whitmire, Rhee inherited a "bloated and poorly run" central office filled with "people who had little guidance as to do their jobs." Michelle Rhee inherited all of  these "incompetent" African American "Barry appointees." Never mind that several mayors served between Barry and Fenty. Never mind that the numerous superintendents serving under those mayors also came in and went on similar firing sprees. Never mind that under Rhee, the number of central office employees rose by 20% (and they claim to be understaffed!) as direct services to students and overall enrollment fell . Never mind that at least 100 central office employees now make more than $100,000 a year. Never mind that most of the people Rhee hired to replace the vastly "incompetent" black employees were white and under the age of forty with little to no experience in education.

See, when Fenty spent vastly more money on facilities and playgrounds in the whiter and more affluent Ward 3 and when Michelle Rhee crowded central offices with underqualified and overpaid employees, it's "progress" and "courage", but under previous (black) mayors and superintendents, it's "incompetence," "a jobs program," and a way of "hiring people and securing votes." (And perhaps an understandable response to all of that nasty, isolated racism of the 1970s.)

Yes, according to Whitmire, white people saw Michelle Rhee's firings "based on principal recommendation" as, well, "logical," while misinformed black people saw them as "random." Furthermore, black Washingtonians couldn't handle that testing gains happened under Michelle Rhee, who is Korean-American, and not under her predecessor Clifford Janey, who is African American. Apparently, black residents in Washington, D.C., can't handle success happening to non-blacks. Whitmire is a hair away from crying "reverse racism!" here:
"The fact that Rhee was Korean American, and not African American as her predecessors had been, also proved to be racially troublesome, especially when the district began to show testing improvements. Rationalizing that awkward situation gave birth to a widespread belief among many black Washingtonians that the gains Rhee achieved were the fruits of the black schools chief, Clifford Janey, who preceded her"
Finally, the elections came and Fenty lost because, "the favoring-whites belief proved to be a significant wedge issue in the voting." Those silly black people with their "favoring whites beliefs" and Janey test gain "theories." 

There's so much more I could say about this vile piece. There's so much left that offends. (Please, read it for yourselves.) But mostly, it epitomizes what's wrong with the so-called education reformers' approach: that the problem in public education is not systemic or societal (or even more than one problem), but one of low quality people, in DC's case, mostly black people, who fail to teach poor children how to read. The parents of these kids are also too simple minded, too bound up in perverse race pride to recognize their saviors when they ride in on their broomsticks. When will they realize, as Michelle does, what's actually good for their own children, that what they really need is to bring in high-achieving Ivy Leaguers, so that they, too, don't become low quality people? Who cares if they don't know anything about education or teaching?

In the meantime, DC Mayor Vincent Gray has betrayed so many who worked so hard for him and appointed Interim DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson as permanent chancellor. A chancellor selection advisory panel was appointed, as mandated by a 2007 DC law, but apparently Gray and the panel members decided that democratic processes are one of those "sacred cows" that need to be slaughtered: the only candidate they ever considered was Ms. Henderson. Henderson certainly seems to be more conciliatory and thoughtful than Ms. Rhee was, which is a start, but I'm hearing that so far, that's mostly talk. The community and other stakeholders aren't being involved in decisions and there is still little to no transparency. Furthermore, Ms. Henderson continues to embrace the same wrong-headed policies that Ms. Rhee did.

Not to worry. I'm certain Richard Whitmire will soon write a piece assuring all that now that African-American Kaya Henderson is in charge, that over-sensitive and incompetent African American residents of DC will have no further complaints. According to Whitmire's logic, black folks in DC don't care about the quality of education their children receive, nor do they care about competence; they only care about blackness.

If Richard Whitmire is trying to deflect the negativity people feel from Michelle Rhee on to him (especially now that she and Fenty have stated their support for Scott Walker), he's doing a great job. If anything validates Courtland Milloy's post-election screed, this does.

As Tim Wise says,
"there are two types of racists, the overt racists, such as white supremacists, and the passive racists, who are the vast majority of us who silently collaborate with systemic racism. We don't consciously believe in racial superiority or inferiority, but we've become so used to the existing policies, practices, and procedures that we don't question them. To the extent we don't challenge this system of racism, we are collaborating with it. The second type of racist is actually more dangerous. The first type we can easily recognize, and it doesn't take much courage to condemn them. the second type is like an invisible gas: you don't know it's there until you've been lulled unconscious by it."
Which kind of racist would you say Mr. Whitmire is? I'd say he falls somewhere just between the two.


  1. A very good analysis of Whitmire and his book, Rachel. And I agree, he is a little of both except that he has no idea that he is being overtly racist when he writes what he does. It's a wonder he doesn't mention his friends who just happen to be black. His arrogance, something that actally does come out in his writing, is so strong in person you choke on it. I think you really had to be at Politics and Prose to believe how insulting he was. I recommend to anyone to go and see him if he is talking anywhere. Ask him questions, make him justify his position. While I do not think you will have any more success than those of us at P&P, I do think you will help expose him for the hack fraud he is and help discredit, further, his book.

  2. Thank you, lodesterre. You know, I did not actually read the book. I don't think I could. When I first heard of it, I just figured that Whitmire was some Jay Matthews type--that the book would be semi-balanced and bumbling.

    But then I read your account of the P & P event, and then his other pieces kept coming out. By the time the HuffPo bit was published, I felt done. Someone I follow on twitter had posted it. I wasn't even going to read it, but read it through once quickly and noticed the inanities such as
    "School reformers like to talk, so they conference a lot. They like writing even more, so they dash off torrents of commentaries on improving schools." "School reformers like to talk and write"? What does that mean?

    And something else seemed really, really off, so I read it again and it took my breath away when I realized what he was saying: in brief that black people in DC got these jobs only as civil rights gestures or as a result of Marion Barry's corruption and that they were just inherently incompetent & unqualified. Furthermore, members of the black community they served was too full of race pride and incompetent themselves to realize this.

    I thought, this can't be; he can't be saying this. So I read it again and again and each time I read it, I found more that was offensive. I asked some people I'm close to read it, just to make sure I wasn't missing something and they, too, were flabbergasted.

    I mean it's 2011 and it's like nothing has changed.


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