Real education issues under racial cloud

April 18, 1996|By MICHAEL OLESKER

In Michael Olesker's column Thursday, it was incorrectly stated that the Baltimore County NAACP sought a black person for the position of county school superintendent. In fact, the NAACP opposed the appointment Dr. Anthony Marchione. The column also stated incorrectly that Dr. Bernetha George, vice president of the county NAACP, referred directly to the job specifications of Elfreda W. Massie, the recently named deputy superintendent. She did not.

The Sun regrets the error.

Say a little prayer for Elfreda W. Massie, blameless until everyone discovered she was black. Then, many things happened all at once. She was named deputy superintendent of Baltimore County public schools. White people went: Wink, wink, we know what that's all about. Black people went: We know what it's all about, too, and don't try to patronize us.

And poor Dr. Massie doesn't even show up for work until July.

When Dr. Anthony Marchione named Massie his No. 2 person last week, it followed considerable hand-wringing over Marchione's own recent appointment. The NAACP, pointing to continuing gaps between black and white kids' classroom performance, wanted a black superintendent. Some whites felt the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was unfairly blaming Marchione, the interim chief, for generations of perceived white insensitivity in schools.


So, when Marchione reached down to Montgomery County for the unknown Massie, it set off a new round of talk about racial sensitivities. Clearly, Marchione was making a peace offering. Clearly, nobody bought it.

And poor Massie's own impressive background -- a master's in )) education from the Johns Hopkins University, a Ph.D. in philosophy from Maryland and then important jobs in the Baltimore and Montgomery county school systems -- seems virtually ignored in the current atmosphere.

Thus do we wind ourselves more tightly in the suffocating grip of racial gamesmanship, wherein whites in power offer symbolic gestures and blacks seeking power see through it, and the kids in classrooms continue to flounder and nobody has an answer for this.

At Massie's appointment, we had Dr. Bernetha George, vice president of the NAACP's Baltimore County branch, declaring, "Bringing on black faces does not resolve the problem." (This, after the NAACP pointedly sought a black superintendent.) George referred directly to Massie's new job specifications: overseeing the county schools' budget, buildings and other noninstructional operations, where not an imprint will be felt in the actual process of learning.

Her remarks were backed by two other NAACP officers in interviews this week: Dr. Bowyer Freeman, chairman of the NAACP's Maryland-D.C. region, and Patricia Ferguson, president of the NAACP's Baltimore County branch.

"Look at Howard County," said Dr. Freeman, who lives there. "Black people here are among the highest-paid and best-educated on the planet. So you can't blame poverty or genetics or any of that business" on the large black-white learning gaps there.

"We have one of the best school systems in the state. But black kids have all the highest negatives. The most detention, the lowest test scores, the most suspensions. This is not the inner city. These are kids with money and resources and family lives. Cultural insensitivity. It's real."

Ferguson's words were an echo of Freeman's. She talked about sensitivity, about cultural differences, about Elfreda Massie's new job having nothing to do with academics.

"We don't need a black face, but a sensitive one," Ferguson said. "Our children walk into a classroom and say, 'Yo, homey, wha's hap?' They communicate differently. What might be offensive to one group of teachers is not offensive to another. Teachers expect: Don't question, don't call out. But children today are questioning more."

Some of this is a little confusing. Cultural differences? Wasn't the integration of schools, begun 40 years ago, supposed to help melt all these different cultures into one cooperative, mutually understanding culture? Wasn't it supposed to reflect the assumption that, at bottom, we were reaching for an all-embracing American culture? If we're saying white teachers and administrators are incapable of understanding black youngsters, are we issuing an implicit call for a return to segregated schools?

No one makes such a statement overtly. Certainly, the NAACP's entire history argues otherwise. But there used to be a presumed goal of colorblindness, which no longer seems part of the agenda.

"The dynamics of Baltimore County are changing," says Ferguson, who teaches science at a middle school in the city. "This is not to say teachers are prejudiced. But it's a different kind of child that they haven't dealt with before. Children on welfare, with drugs in the family background. A lot of them raised by their grandmas. It's just diversity they've never seen before."

She gets closer to the problem now. It helps no one to blame educators -- white or black -- for situations they didn't create. How do we reach these children before they act out in school? Hiring poor Elfreda Massie isn't the answer. Say a prayer for her. Her excellent qualifications are overlooked because we're all so caught up in this business of race.

Pub Date: 4/18/96

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