I have never met Mr. Steve Latz, but I want to thank him for posting the video of me on March 5 at the BOE meeting. I had not given that evening a thought until I saw the video. I wish to apologize to our community for the clumsy manner in which I tried in two rushed minutes to convey my opinions regarding the achievement gap and the BOE’s address of the same. In addition, I was angry with a BOE and a Superintendent whose priorities offer little for my children. That meeting was no forum to discuss my opinions. I overstated and insulted. I am better than that, and the residents of Maplewood and South Orange deserve better than that.
I said that “broadly culture” and “single-parent families” account for the achievement gap, rather than “white racism.” It was a proposition, not an argument, as I did not have time to make an argument. I should have known better. Nothing I said that night was racist, even though it was most explicitly and deliberately racial. Nothing I said was new or original. Indeed nothing I said was out of the mainstream of decades of study on the matter. I am a psychiatrist who has spent my career to date in public psychiatry. I am not an education expert. Nonetheless, the issues my patients present overlap with educational issues. Delinquent kids and prisoners typically also have problems in school. I also understand that black culture is not monolithic. That’s one of the reasons why I moved here. Enough said.
Despite my curt certainty at the BOE meeting, I do not have the Answer to the achievement gap. I am convinced, however, that culture, including but not limited to single-parent families is responsible. Studies suggest that single-parent families are a significant contributor to the achievement gap. This is a robust finding that has been around for years. My experience in prison as well as my understanding of the psychiatric literature similarly teaches me that single-parent families (and the corollary of absent fathers) is a risk factor for crime. The prevalence of single-parent families in this country has risen over the past several decades, and these families are not confined to one race. In 2009, according to the Centers for Disease Control, 17% of Asian children, 29% of white children, 53% of Hispanic children, and 73% of black children were born outside of marriage in the United States. A 2002 report by the CDC revealed that most unmarried parents are not living together. Although many children of single parents do just fine, when such a large percentage of children have this risk factor, many will suffer and the effects will be pervasive. In my practice, I commonly encounter single mothers whose children have academic as well as legal difficulties. The mother works and has limited time and money for her children. An absent father may result in no positive male role model for the child, which may be particularly harmful to boys.
A host of other things reportedly also contribute to the achievement gap, including in no particular order, lousy urban schools, too much TV, peer pressure, poor nutrition, parental education and income, “cultural capital” and stereotype threat to name a few in no particular order – the “broad culture” I mentioned in my BOE appearance. I have difficulty believing that the Superintendent and the BOE do not recognize these factors are important. Yet it’s easier in this age to claim racism as a source of problems. Thus my comment that the Superintendent’s and BOE’s focus on racism is “displacement.” To be fair, studies do suggest that academic tracking contributes to the achievement gap between whites and blacks. Our Superintendent (and the BOE by its acquiescence) has adopted this argument when he notes that our high school graduates who were in Level 3 graduated college at a lower rate than those in level 4. The problem is he took this correlation as causation. He’s smart enough to think of alternative hypotheses.
The Superintendent has asserted that we have an educational “debt” to pay historically discriminated groups. The BOE has not contradicted him. You want to talk about being “offended.” I did not move into this town to pay down a historical debt. I doubt others did either. If that’s the price of admission, I worry who will want to join us. Our children should not pay for the sins of our fathers. Thus I responded at a BOE meeting that just because I chose for me and my family to live in an integrated town and call my black neighbors my friends, does not mean I signed up for reparations. I meant it.
Let me add, on the other hand, that in addition to any altruistic motive I have, it is in my financial interest for black kids to do well. My property value would skyrocket if black kids’ school performance was equal to that of white kids. People might not admire the sentiment – I don’t admire the sentiment – but at least few will doubt my sincerity.
Why am I not inclined to wear the hair shirt or believe the “equity” argument? Because I do not see inequity in our schools. We have a natural experiment going on in Maplewood and South Orange. (It’s okay. The white kids are in the experiment, too.) The fact is the achievement gap in our two towns is present in 3rd grade when we first measure it. I suspect the gap is present earlier as studies elsewhere suggest the achievement gap is present in pre-school. That achievement gap persists in our district even though we have unleveled classes through 6th grade. This finding suggests three things: whether or not the achievement gap is due to single mothers, radon, or Fruit Loops, the achievement gap starts very early and has nothing to do with current racism; efforts to overcome that gap should likewise start early; and deleveling in later school years is likely to offer only marginal decreases in the achievement gap. Our failure to recognize this natural experiment in our district is what I find frustrating with the BOE’s efforts to reduce the gap. Focus on the early years.
Our Superintendent and BOE understand this, to a point. Their implementation of full-day kindergarten is an intervention our situation and studies suggests might reduce the gap. Mr. Latz might wish to prowl old BOE videos to see if I complained about this innovation. He will not find me because I support the move. TV Turnoff is another modest early intervention that might help. The research shows that black students watch more hours of TV per weekday than white students. A Child Trends (www.childtrendsdatabank.org) study found that 53% of black 8th grade students watch four or more hours of TV on weekdays, compared with 18% of white 8th grade students. Our family does TV Turnoff. It’s a pleasure. The high school offers the MAC Scholars program which mentors black students to help them succeed. Again, this is culture.
What troubles me is that the Super and the BOE have gone on to address the achievement gap by making significant changes in the middle school and, most worrisomely, the high school. Years ago, we deleveled 6th grade. Within the past year or so we deleveled the 7th grade. Within the past few months, with scant and equivocal data on the effect of deleveling in the 7th grade, the BOE went on to delevel not only the 8th grade, but also some of the high school. The Superintendent has stated that he holds out the possibility of even further deleveling in the high school. I am concerned that these changes might reduce the challenge of classes for high-achieving students (including our many high-achieving black students), and thereby hinder their achievement. That is part of what this recent BOE election was about.
When Mr. Latz, quoted me in my above-mentioned reparation remark, he left out the first part of that sentence where I mentioned my black neighbors and friends. He has misquoted or misinterpreted me on several occasions. It started on the very night of March 5, after I made my notorious remarks. He followed me in the public remarks and suggested that I had said something along the lines of black parents don’t care for their children. I am not as assiduous as Mr. Latz in scrounging up old BOE videos, so I can’t be certain of his precise words. I remember thinking his response was odd, but I let it pass. During the recent BOE campaign, Mr. Latz (and the campaign manager of the BOE candidates he supported) wrote an email to fellow supporters in which he stated, “Some of the most vocal supporters of the Eastman slate believe that Black kids can’t excel because of Black culture." He then provided the public link to the statement made by me at the March 5 meeting. Of course, having seen and heard the video, he knows I never said what he claimed I said. In fact, I said the opposite: I commented that there were many high-achieving black kids in this district. He then wrote in a South Orange Patch piece on April 19 that “it is a serious issue when someone implies – as Reeves did – that district efforts to address achievement issues are doomed to fail because the students in question are incapable of high achievement. “ Again, I never said that, and never implied that.
At the April 12 debate sponsored by the Community Coalition on Race (CCR), the moderator posed a question to a candidate I supported. The question mentioned me and my March 5 remarks, and claimed I said, “The problem in our district is black culture.” Once again, a gross distortion of what I said. The moderator asked the candidate what he thought of my comment and if I had held a coffee for him. (Yes I did hold a coffee for the candidates I supported, one in which, by the way, we invited the husband of a current BOE member who supports deleveling. That man did attend, participated in the discussion, and was received cordially.) The question offered by the CCR moderator was objected to and was not answered.
The Director of the CCR in an April 17 statement on South Orange Patch wrote that the question was asked because seven attendees had asked the same question, and because part of the CCR’s mission is “candid conversation” on race. Here’s what I think: The opposing campaign needed a bogeyman, and I was it. Those seven attendees were supporters of the other side who read Mr. Latz’s email and got together and decided to press an opposing candidate on the issue. Guilt by association is an honorable tradition in politics. Well-played. But the CCR has been in the race business a few years and knows better. If the CCR is going to mention me by name, it should at least have the decency to state correctly what I said. As poorly nuanced as my statement on March 5 was, it was not the rock the CCR dropped that evening. Better yet, if the CCR as a tax-funded organization were actually interested in candid conversation, it would have asked every candidate what they thought was the cause(s) of the achievement gap. It was the perfect opportunity for the CCR to manifest what it claims is one of its purposes, and the CCR blew it. What we got was a run-of-the-mill hatchet job abetted by the CCR whether purposely or through incompetence.
Over the past year or so I have appeared before the South Orange Board of Trustees and have written to the News-Record, criticizing the CCR for its political partisanship – it advocated for deleveling, among other missteps – and asking for its defunding for that reason. Whether this was payback, I don’t know. What is certain is that my tax dollars are now paying for my own character assassination. Which is funny in a miserable sort of way, except that I’m the butt of the joke. Add cruel irony and dishonesty to the CCR’s mission.
Mr. Latz and the CCR have attributed to me statements I simply did not make. Since the video and words are readily available on the internet, I conclude that they have deliberately misstated my words to make me look bad. They are making things up. They have taken what I offered as an attempt at forthright albeit blunt and less than professionally polished discussion, and because they don’t agree with my opinions, they are maligning me. No wonder people keep their mouths shut rather than discuss race. Thus I respond now not only to clarify my words on March 5, but also to protect my reputation. You’re trouble, Mr. Latz. And so is the CCR.
Hasn’t all this racist finger-pointing gone far enough? We all have our prejudices. What do you think our politics are? I suppose I should be more careful yet.
Finally, if I may resort to the ad Obaminem defense, my opinion about the importance of fathers put me square in the camp of President Obama. Check out his 2008 Father’s Day speech when he calls out absent black fathers. He can get away with it because he’s half-black. Guess what? We both wear suits. My opinions are fair-minded. If Mr. Latz and the CCR are looking for a demon, they should look elsewhere.
April 23, 2012