Tuesday, June 17, 2008

But this is Newark

When schools open this fall, Newark will have a new Superintendent at the helm. Dr. Clifford Janey will take over for retiring Marion Bolden as head of the state’s largest public school district. Janey seems highly capable but will be tested early. He will need all of our support and he will need to craft working relationships within Newark’s many varied constituencies and interest centers.

Janey emerged the winner in a contest that began with the review of 26 candidates and winnowed down to three finalists, Clifford Janey, Donnie Evans and Ross Danis, for the superintendent post. Janey and Evans are both Black and Danis is White. In an informal ranking, the overwhelming majority of the Superintendent Search Committee had Janey at the top of their list followed by Evans and then Danis. Furthermore Janey was accorded top candidate status by a majority if not all of the members of the Newark Public Schools Advisory Board. None of this was secret and clearly found its way to the ears of the Governor. Against this background, it seems reasonable that Janey won the superintendency. While the Governor certainly had the final call, he was not operating without practical constraint. And it would have been virtually impossible for the near inevitability of the Janey selection to fall outside Cory Booker’s intellectual grasp. And while Booker had an opportunity to meet with each finalist, he took no position in favor of any candidate.

But this is Newark. And already folks are jockeying to shape the new superintendent’s perceptions and reality in an effort to favorably position themselves on Dr. Janey’s radar. His, after all, is a powerful position with a large budget. Access is key to power players. And what better way to gain or deny access than to manipulate perceptions.

So it is no wonder that someone planted a story in the “Auditor” section of the Star Ledger last Sunday designed to diminish and sour any influence that Newark Mayor Cory Booker would have with Superintendent Janey. By suggesting publicly that Booker was against Janey, and with a bold stroke aimed at demeaning Booker’s role and point of view in the superintendent selection process, detractors hoped to tarnish the mayor’s reputation on several fronts. It is a flawed strategy destined to fail simply because it does not square with the facts. But this great lie has taken root in some quarters and its masters are doing everything they can to make it viral. We can only hope the truth will provide sufficient inoculation.

The idea of the story was to feed an ongoing strategy to isolate Booker. By pitting him in a struggle with Governor Corzine over the selection of Janey as superintendent, Booker was to be portrayed as against the best interests of Newark school children. It also sought to fan contention between Mayor Booker and Steve Adubato, with whom Booker has had a series of recent dust-ups. Adubato is quoted in the Ledger piece as making a statement that has not been verified and is not likely to be verifiable. Nonetheless, the planted Booker/Corzine/anti-Janey feud story is being peddled all over town and Steve Adubato is now being blamed for it.

According to the story, Booker favored Ross Danis for the job. Steve is quoted as saying of the mayor, “Everybody knows he was with Danis….I don’t think it’s right to have a position and keep it a secret.” Now analyze Steve’s comment. It states a falsehood, accuses the mayor of wrongful behavior and condemns him for harboring a secret. This is pretty powerful stuff. And were it accurate, it might be damning. But it’s just dead wrong.

Put the question of Steve aside for the moment. He did not generate this story. His comments merely capitalized on its existence. There was support for Dr. Danis on the search committee. There was also the idea that Danis could be manipulated to emerge as the ultimate choice while his principal supporters remained hidden. Once it was publicized that Danis was the number three preference of the search committee, this became more complicated. The only possibility of success required making Booker responsible for Danis. That way you get Danis and slam Booker at the same time—hence the “Booker supports Danis” rumors. It was just another “thought-to-be-clever” move among many that surfaced over the selection process.

The “Booker supports Danis” story was circulated for about 3 weeks and generated serious concern in the Governor’s circle. They were assured early on that the assertion lacked credibility. And they were satisfied with those assurances.

But as we know, these things are rarely as simple as they seem. Once mischief-makers had created an opening for destabilization they were emboldened. Their motivation is always “Wedge Driving.” They had a very simple two-step plan: (1) Make the public believe that Booker is for the “White” guy even though he was ranked at the bottom, hopefully driving a wedge between Booker and both the Black and Latino communities; and (2) Signal to Janey that Booker is against his appointment thereby undermining their essential alliance and its unique potential for substantive positive change.

These carefully crafted machinations are, unfortunately, the palliative dispensed by proper people seeking to maintain the status quo. They and their kind are at work all the time. They need the maintenance of a victim class to exist. Strong, independent leadership is not in their interest. The constant manufacture of distraction is a clear strategy to further dependency. We must maintain a proper focus on the goal of creating productive schools with liberating curriculum. Getting caught up in a manufactured Corzine/Booker/Adubato/Janey drama is succumbing to a trick. We have real adversaries and obstacles—and not each other. Sometimes we mistakenly focus on the foil instead of the fault. We are less concerned with what Corzine or Adubato do than what we fail to do. We know the culprits that own this divisive moment and in time so will you.

June 17, 2008

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

The Pace of Change

Now that the Democratic Party Primary Elections are over, the real work to create and realize a Barack Obama presidency begins. Many people think that the issue of race will be major over the course of the campaign. We are not naïve but we think it will play far less a role than generation. The real change that is pushing at the fabric of America is generational change. The world is changing; it is getting younger, smarter and more interconnected. Globalization is not just economic; it is social and cultural as well.

The message of the Obama presidential nomination is a message essentially from younger people that the old paradigms are crumbling. Race driven behavior must ultimately give way to thought driven behavior. But the transition won’t be easy. Many of us have grown a wee bit too comfortable in our racial silos and believe the cocoon-like comfort they provide offers our best opportunity to survive and thrive. This widespread belief makes itself manifest in our daily cultural, social and political processes.

An Obama presidency threatens many old norms about race that are predominantly held by the generation preceding him. “Old people with old ideas” are sometimes reluctant to make the arrival of a new generation of leadership anything but a painful breach birth. This generational rift highlights a worrisome contradiction in the African American political community. On the one hand we are uniquely proud of what Senator Obama has accomplished and readily take ownership of his nomination. On the other hand we are fiercely resisting the emergence of young Black and Latino leaders in our midst. This kind of duplicity will always play itself out as increased powerlessness.

Just a week ago there was a struggle over who would be Chairman of the Essex County Democratic Party. The choices were clearly generational. Though feigning otherwise, most in the older generation were unwilling to consider hoisting the younger aspirants to leadership. Among us older African Americans considering a “change” in leadership, there was a clear, though unspoken, lack of confidence in the young folks, even though they were smart, experienced, well trained and well connected. The old folks supported themselves and each other. And despite much fiery rhetoric about systemic and institutional change, in the end the entire hubbub turned out to be about one job for one person. Our community is in the grips of an intellectually dishonest, ruthless, selfish group of politicians. Their political craft is incestuous.

It appears that we will be required to abide this abnormalism for a time yet, but the days of feeding on the futures of our young are nearing an end. It is sheer hypocrisy to be an ardent advocate for Barack Obama on the national scene and virulently against nearly all of his generation in our local community. It raises too many questions that beg for unavailable rational answers.

So here it is. More so than not, young White people are making the Obama phenomenon possible. They have decided to boldly step around stereotypicalism and embrace Barack. And they did so quicker and in larger numbers than did Blacks. And they continue to do so unabashedly and with great enthusiasm at the same moment that we are gobbling up the aspirations of our young. No one can deny the large critical support base that Black Americans provide Obama, but it was, at first, gingerly offered and late coming as though awaiting permission or fearing retribution—but better late than never. Again, it was the older Black generation that expressed the most reluctance and showed the least confidence in this young Black man. And while this truth might not be well received, were it not for the press of young White supporters, there would be no Democratic Nominee Barack Obama. Remember Iowa?

As President Obama reaches around the world to hammer out a reality that measures up to the change of his vision, it will require tough decisions. In Obama's words, “the work of change will be hard.” And we are doing little to prepare our youth to be partners in that work. They won’t get to the table just because they are Black. They will need the experience and track records that only we might care to give them. And we should not complain if they are passed over when we ourselves pass them over each and every day. Obama is on the fast track being propelled by a lot of well meaning Americans, a critical mass of which are young agents of change. Like it or not it is a generation coming of age. A generation bursting out of White America looking to “remake the world.” If political leadership in Black communities holds onto the reigns of opportunity too tightly for too long we will surely choke off opportunities for our youth.

In Newark we cannot remember a generational transfer of power in the African American community that did not leave a liberal pool of political blood on the floor. The “Power concedes nothing without demand” school of thought is taken to extremes with us. We routinely ostracize our babies or condemn them to political death. We have seen two African American mayors come and go without creating a single self-sustaining institution upon which their political progeny could build. Rather, the model that we’ve seen replicated is one of “perceived familial entitlement.” It has not served us well.

The generational struggle in Black and White communities will, no doubt, surge to the fore in the fall Obama presidential campaign. If we are not adequately prepared to fend off its worst consequences, unanticipated possibilities that have befallen us might never be realized. The challenge immediately before us is to open up and embrace a new “politics of inclusion,” beginning in our own community.

Young White people are working hard to throw off their fear and plunge into the future and define change with their behavior. And increasingly they have the support of their elders. What are we waiting for? Let’s stop holding our youth back. It’s time to push them into the pool.

June 4, 2008