Friday, September 17, 2010

Replies to a sleazy & despicable column

I was surprised that Washington Post columnist Colbert King ( replied to my email about his column (, in which I wrote: "Playing the race card AND bringing the tragedy of 9/11 into a column that has nothing to do with it?  Wow...  Yours is the sleaziest column I have ever read. Shame, shame!"  He replied:


The "sleaziest"? With all due respect, then you are not well read.


Here was the reply I just sent to him:


Dear Mr. King,


Calling your column "sleaziest…I have ever read" was a bit of hyperbole, perhaps – but only because I should have added "in a mainstream publication."


Since you've done me the courtesy of a respectful reply, allow me to do the same and tell you exactly why I had such a strong negative reaction to your column. 


But before doing so, allow me to introduce myself so you can rest assured that I'm well read in general and VERY well read on this topic in particular.  Since being one of the first people to help Wendy Kopp start Teach for America 21 years ago, fixing our K-12 educational system, especially as it relates to low-income, minority children, has become an obsession for me.  I've been on KIPP's board in NY for the past decade, serve on the board of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, and have visited well over 100 high-performing charter schools nationwide that are achieving nothing short of educational miracles with low-income black and Latino children.  On the political side, I am one of the founders of Democrats for Education Reform.  Finally, my slide presentation on the twin achievement gaps (attached) was made into a documentary called A Right Denied: The Critical Need for Genuine School Reform (see; I'd be happy to send you a copy).  My full bio is at:


There are two general reasons why I called your column sleazy and despicable:


1) You dragged the tragedy of 9/11 into a column and into a debate where is has no place.  What, pray tell, do three DC schoolchildren who died on 9/11 have to do with the racial politics of reforming DC's schools and whether it's appropriate for Rhee to campaign for Mayor Fenty?  Whether you intended it or not, the subtext of your column was: "What Michelle Rhee is doing is dishonoring these children and therefore she should resign."  As an American (and New Yorker), I view this as a sleazy and despicable exploitation of 9/11.


2) Rather than seriously addressing a very real and important issue, you instead engaged in shallow racial politics.  Yes, race is a huge issue when it comes to reforming DC's (or any big city's) schools.  The school system is often the largest employer in urban black communities and has been a powerful route to the middle class for millions of black families.  To many in black communities, the immediate and tangible reality of education reform is the loss of jobs (which are – even worse – sometimes filled by young, white Ivy Leaguers), while the offsetting benefits of better schools and more educated students are more amorphous and uncertain.  Especially in this recession, which has disproportionately impacted blacks and erased many years of progress, it is easy to see why some black leaders oppose the education reform agenda, however short-sighted and ultimately destructive for black communities this is.  Thank goodness President Obama and Mayor Fenty, among many others, haven't fallen into this trap, but this jobs-vs.-reform dilemma is so powerful that it has utterly paralyzed many of the major civil rights organizations like the NAACP – the very organizations that should be fighting the hardest for school reform, the civil rights issue of our time.


You could have written a thoughtful, balanced column about this difficult issue, but instead you used the most inflammatory language and painted the most extreme picture when you wrote: "Underlying the dislike for Rhee is the suspicion that her education reforms -- blessed by Mayor Fenty -- are part of a well-calculated strategy to weed out African Americans from positions in the public school management and classrooms, thus making the schools more acceptable to the city's growing number of well-off white people."  And then, you say that Rhee campaigning for Mayor Fenty (a black man, no less!) is "mak[ing] matters worse."  This is total nonsense and you know it.  Yes, the feelings you describe held by some in the black community are real, but they existed long before Rhee began campaigning for Mayor Fenty and would be there even is she had stayed neutral in the mayoral contest.


Reasonable people can certainly debate whether Rhee's campaigning is appropriate – I see no problem with it, given the inherently political nature of her job, the fact that Fenty appointed her, and the reforms for which she's worked so hard and in which she so deeply believes depend on his re-election – but I understand your point of view. 


But what is sleazy and despicable is you playing the race card, blaming her actions for making the black community even more paranoid and for being racially "divisive" and "polarizing."  Washington DC is indeed a "racially strained city", but Michelle Rhee didn't cause it and, by campaigning for Mayor Fenty, she's not making it any more so.  But columns like yours certainly do.


Whitney Tilson

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