By Ann-Marie Adams, Op-Ed Columnist
HARTFORD, CT — CNN’s point pundit on everything education is under fire in his own backyard.
And it’s about time some people in Hartford want Perry to Man Up.
Often, I’d hear from a friend: Look, Perry is on CNN again. His and other people’s fascination with Perry was interesting for several reasons. Prime among them was Perry’s determined rise to celebrity. I figured his fame was good for Connecticut because it helped put the spotlight on Hartford.
Perry is not from Hartford, however. He skipped Middletown, CT–his hometown– and came to help city children excel. Soon after his prominent rise, complaints began. One critic, who was unemployed, said he, unlike Perry, has “actually been a teacher inside the classroom.” And he resented that “this light-skinned man” was telling teachers what to do.
This critic also resented Perry telling black people to pull themselves up by the bootstrap. That’s because Perry seemingly wanted to ignore the more than three centuries of slavery and the complex psychological and economic impact of a draconian machine that garnered wealth for the western world.
The CNN pundit wanted parents to be on the football field cheering on their children, instead of trying to manage two part-time minimum wage jobs. He shunned the idea that parent involvement also included working to pay bills, keeping a roof over their heads and feeding their children.
More importantly, they said, Perry’s children attended Breakthrough Magnet School, the district’s Blue Ribbon school. As a result, they argued, he knew nothing about tackling the nasty attitudes of disengaged black and white teachers, who drive from the suburbs into the city. He knew nothing about blacks dealing with Latino administrators, who have an affinity to Europhilia (the love of everything European). He knew nothing about parents who have to subject their children to teachers, who believe not all children can learn. And he knew nothing about teachers, who ignored their children to the point that one student felt compel to blurt out to a substitute teacher: “I’m not learning anything. You’re the fifth sub in four days.”
That was the argument bandied about in the community.
Then I’d say to myself: Haters.
That’s because parochial people, most of whom always make it known that they were born in Hartford, resent others coming into Hartford and succeeding, supposedly displacing their kinfolk. Perry was an outsider making a difference.
As Perry’s star rose, talks persisted. Parents complained that Perry kicked their children out of school, that Perry had a 100 percent success rate because he picked bright students, and he had fewer than 50 students graduating each year. So, they argued, it would be baffling if he had failed to graduate only a few students.
Recently, I watched the controversial 2009 CNN special that featured Perry. On the surface, his message is inspiring and instructive: You can achieve if you work hard, overcome obstacles and be persistent. However, the subtext is familiar yet disturbing: Yeah, there’s racism. But get over it.
Perry’s principal message is at the crux of the local backlash.
That’s because blacks in Connecticut have been trying to get over slavery and its long-term effects since 1638. And the state has responded by enacting laws to prevent them. Take for example the Tanya McDowell incident in Norwalk. Norwalk officials arrested the 33-year-old, homeless woman because of a law that has its genesis in the 1830s.
In April 1833 a white teacher named Prudence Crandall opened a school for black girls in wealthy Canterbury. The state responded by enacting a law that banned blacks from traveling into the state for an education. In April 2011, McDowell’s decision to put her six-year-old in the Brookside Elementary School in a high-achieving and wealthy school district exposed that lingering custom. She was arrested and charged with a felony for stealing a quality education. She faces 20 years.
Slavery and racism perfected for almost five centuries cannot be over within five decades. Today, like the 1830s, a convicted white man has a better chance of getting a job than a black college graduate with no criminal record. Black unemployment rate today is the same level as it was in the 1960s. Blacks with credit scores of 750 and a graduate degree are subjected to predatory lenders and collectors. They also face discrimmination when seeking loans and apartments.
And Perry’s Washingtonian message that blacks should get over racism has rightfully rubbed some the wrong way — as it should.
Racism is not an obstacle to get over like a hurdle on a school playground. It’s a systemic problem to confront.