August 3, 2020

Ms. Johnson, I apologize

For the public record, this is a note to Bernadeia Johnson.

Ma’am, I am sorry.

A several years ago you were superintendent of the Minneapolis Public schools and I was a former school board member who had tired of a school district that I felt was insupportably slow at addressing its problems with black and brown students.

After a long fight with MPS brass and staff came to believe the district under your leadership was more interested in appeasing adults than raising achievement. In our terse interactions during that time I targeted you all for a campaign that likened the work you did to the Jim Crow South.

I think we called the slow movement toward reform, the over-suspension and warehousing of blacks students, and the lack of investments in the Office of Black Male Achievement, “Jim Crow, Jr.

You’re being from the South, almost as deep south as me, it must have been a piss-inducing label for you to hear.

While it was a particularly spiteful and angry message to send, it was also justifiable in my mind by the inadequate responses community members were given after multiple inquiries about the district’s plan was for improving black students’ lives. It seemed to us that if folks weren’t white and socially connected – from the business community or the circles of wine-guzzling power parents surrounding the tony lakes of Minneapolis – the district had little interest in the grievances of nobodies.

We weren’t having it. We wouldn’t be quiet.

But you can chalk this up to the proverbial “be careful what you wish for.” We wished for your departure, and in return the gods gave us reasons to see our folly. We thought you were the problem when in fact you were merely the veneer.

After your departure student achievement did not miraculously improve, in fact, it got worse. The teacher’s contract didn’t improve, it was weakened. Low expectations took permanent residence at district headquarters. Talented people left. The education media went numb. The school board went Solange-in-the-elevator crazy.

The children got hosed.

Yes, I think things were stalling under your administration. But, knowing what I know now, I hadn’t accounted for how many different special-interest groups you were fighting to make even modest progress. Your teachers and their union and the privileged Whole Foods contingent of Southwest Minneapolis that supported them have always been a bless-your-heart kinda special. I think we both know that when they say “equity” it’s just their way of saying “give me what I want or I’ll use the silent hand of privilege to move you out of your role.”

Good negroes do as told and rise through the ranks. Sometimes they even reach the Senate and enroll their kids in private schools. Runaway slaves open up blogs, expose people, and become national voices for education activism.

When you left (or should I say, when you were gently nudged from former supporters who wanted to let you know that while they thought you were an amazing person they also thought it was time for change) you were replaced with the telegenic, affable, white male who had been let go from his previous district because – though he was well-liked by the public and staff – they had an aggressive plan close the achievement gap and because of direct experience they didn’t see him as their leader.

Which of course means that he was perfect for Minneapolis, a place where Morton’s salt passes for an exotic spice, “nice” is better than “good,” and we crave niceness more than effectiveness.

I could belabor the point about how downhill things have gone since you left, but it isn’t necessary. Any fool in Minneapolis can see the district is a circus now. Achievement is subterranean, morale is best among the most incompetent staff, and if there is a governing body anywhere in the U.S. more juvenile and incapable of rationale thought and civic purpose than the Minneapolis School Board, I pray for the souls of their constituents.

While I still feel the frustration with the glacier pace of change during your administration, I can appreciate the initiatives and structural changes you were making now in a way that didn’t make sense then. You needed support to fight the good fight, not a hasty exit to make room for killer milquetoast.

So, having been wrong, incredibly wrong, super wrong, I mean the kind of wrong that’s like Velveeta mac-n-cheese wrong, it’s incumbent upon me to publicly announce my apology to you.

Again, I am sorry.

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