Rothstein on Joel Klein’s Historical Distortions

This piece cuts to the heart of Joel Klein’s fundamental dishonesty as a school reformer–using his own biography, and an implicit argument contrasting the urban histories of European ethnic Americans to those of African Americans and Latinos, to create a straw man argument (known elsewhere as “the soft bigotry of low expectations”) that helps shift attention from structural inequality and the material impact of poverty on learning.

The whole thing is worth a read, and while it goes chapter and verse through the distortions of Klein’s political self-mythologizing, this section points to the heart of the matter, and helps us to understand the school reform debate better by reminding us that the ever present, if unacknowledged, frame is defined by white privilege:

Klein’s most egregious autobiographical distortion is that he grew up in public housing. That’s because, as Klein must know, the words “public housing” evoke an image of minority unemployment, welfare dependence, unwed motherhood, truancy, gangs, drug dealing, addiction, and violence. Klein, though, grew up in racial privilege, dramatically different from the segregated world of most youngsters in public housing today. (Click here to read Richard Rothstein’s related piece on the role of public housing in racially segregating communities.)

Klein did live in public housing after his family moved to Queens in 1955 when he was nine years old. But he fails to say—perhaps because he truly doesn’t realize—that some public housing in New York in the 1940s and 1950s, including the Woodside Houses project where his family resided, was built for white, middle-class families. The poor and the problems poverty causes were unwelcome. This distinction is critical to understanding Klein’s history and why it undermines his current policy prescriptions.

Returning World War II veterans like Klein’s father confronted a housing shortage. To address it, New York erected projects like Woodside Houses, an attractive six-story development with trees, grassy areas, and park benches. Residents were not on the dole but paid rent that covered their housing costs; apartments were not subsidized and were not part of the national low-income housing program.

Rather, for prospective tenants in Woodside Houses and its sister projects, the New York City Housing Authority enforced 21 disqualifying factors. Excluded were single-parent families and those with irregular employment history, out-of-wedlock births, criminal records, narcotics addiction, or mental illness—in other words, any family with the qualities we now associate with public housing. Couples had to show marriage licenses to apply. To filter out undesirables, inspectors visited applicants’ previous homes to verify good housekeeping habits, sufficient furniture, and well-behaved children. Neighborhood public schools serving complexes like Woodside Houses thus didn’t have to contend with unruly adolescents; they had already been weeded out by the Housing Authority.

School “reform” advocates will probably see Rothstein’s deconstruction of Klein’s autobiography as churlish (they weren’t poor because they went to the Catskills on vacation), but so much of Klein’s moral authority as a reformer rests on his biography (certainly not on his nonexistent experience as an educator) that it’s fair game. Here’s the punch line:

It would be obscene for me to claim I overcame severe hardship and was rescued from deprivation by schoolteachers. It is more obscene for Klein to do so, because his claim supports attacks on contemporary teachers and a refusal to acknowledge impediments teachers face because of their students’ social and economic deprivation. It’s a deprivation that he never suffered but that many children from public housing do today.

I think it’s essential to underscore that this is not only personal, though it certainly is in part. Klein’s self-mythologizing also taps into a deep vein of reactionary thought about urban minority communities that uses a contrast with the upward mobility of white ethnics to suggest that something is wrong with racial minorities. The twist here is that Klein is implicitly attacking not minority school children but minority school teachers, but the dishonest tactic is the same: ignore the special privileges granted to white ethnics by virtue of being white, ignore the withdrawal of support for public housing, public schools, and the public sector generally that occurred when the face of that public sector became black or brown, ignore the macroeconomic forces that, in combination with embedded racism, produce poverty and economic isolation. Above all, ignore that these social changes make the jobs of teachers in poor communities more difficult than ever.

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