Tuesday, March 18, 2014

A Reply to David Brooks' Column About Newark

I have long stopped reading David Brooks' columns, along with most of the Times' op-ed writers, because they have become rather stale and predictable.  (Even Krugman has lost his edge.)  However, this morning I noticed that David Brooks, the paper's resident neo-con Pangloss, had weighed in on the current mayoral election in Newark.

Like a lot of people in the media, Brooks just can't resist writing about a place he doesn't know and doesn't understand because it helps him score points talking about charter schools, "reform," and the "culture of poverty."  In case you don't know, the race is now between two candidates, Shavar Jeffries and Ras Baraka.  Both hail from Newark, although Jeffries made his name elsewhere as a high-powered lawyer and later as assistant attorney general for New Jersey.  (He also heads a charter school.)  Baraka (son of the late poet) is a school principal in Newark and a political activist.  While he occasionally invokes more radical, populist rhetoric, he has done a fine job of reassuring local business elites and building relationships with them.  Jeffries is more of a technocrat, and is pushing the kinds of corporate style "reforms" (charter schools, etc) favored by elites.  

I do not doubt either Jeffries' talent or his genuine desire to make Newark a better place, but I think his priorities are badly misplaced and reflect his immersion in the corporate policy world.  Baraka isn't perfect, but I think he cares a lot more about making life better for Newarkers in concrete ways.  Anyway, Brooks doesn't really deal with the real Shavar Jeffries or the real Ras Baraka.  As he always does, his column devolves into a lazy, simplistic false dichotomy.  In this case, it is the "regular vs. the reformer," with charter schools as the focal point (as if that's the issue Newarkers care about most.  It isn't, but I'll get to that later.)  He describes their differences on education in a typical sweeping generalization wrapped in a false dichotomy:

"Then there is the split, which we’re seeing in cities across the country, between those who represent the traditional political systems and those who want to change them. In Newark, as elsewhere, charter schools are the main flash point in this divide. Middle-class municipal workers, including members of the teachers’ unions, tend to be suspicious of charters. The poor, who favor school choice, and the affluent, who favor education reform generally, tend to support charters."

Brooks makes no mention of the fact that thousands of students in Newark have engaged in walk-outs protesting the neglect of public schools.  These students are not "middle-class municipal workers."  He has not mentioned the fact that the schools themselves are not run by the city, but by the state of New Jersey, which is proposing to eliminate several schools and fire large numbers of teachers and replace them with Teach For America scabs.  He does not mention that Baraka and other high school principals were suspended for the crime of daring to criticize this scheme.  He also fails to consider whether charter schools are actually all that effective in the first place, considering that recent research argues that they are not.  In Newark they are self-selecting, because parents have to be assiduous enough to apply in the first place, and schools can easily kick out low-performing or disruptive students, an option public schools don't have.  (The easiest way to improve test scores is to get weak students out of the testing pool.)

Brooks spends a lot of time burnishing Jeffries' record and biography while disparaging Baraka.  For instance, this is how he describes Baraka:

"Baraka has the support of most of the major unions and political organizations. Over the years, he has combined a confrontational 1970s style of racial rhetoric with a transactional, machine-like style of politics. Baraka is well known in Newark and it shows. There are Baraka signs everywhere there."

What does Brooks mean by "confrontational 1970s style of racial rhetoric"?  As far as I can tell, it means that Baraka is openly and publicly talking about how racism has harmed and continues to harm Newark, something of which there can be no doubt.  A lot of white New Jerseyans like to dispense the lie that Newark was a great place to be until the riots in 67 changed everything.  Of course, the truth is that riots were the result of poverty related to deindustrialization, red-lining, and racism, and that the city was horribly oppressive to its black population.  After the riots, the rest of America and New Jersey wrote Newark off and just hoped it would die in a gutter somewhere.  I have no doubt that if Newark fell of the face of the earth that many in suburban New Jersey would be relieved.  When Baraka talks about Jeffries being supported by outside forces hostile to Newark, he's not just blowing hot air or being demagogic, he's drawing on the very real knowledge that Newarkers have of their own abandonment of and exploitation by outsiders.  The city has not been able to run its own schools for two decades, and now neighborhood schools are being destroyed and the classrooms filled with TFA neophytes.  The parents who are mad about this are not mad because they are union members, they are mad because their children are guinea pigs for corporate "reformers" and they have had their democratic voice over their schools, which people in most communities take for granted, stolen away from them.  

By fighting for these parents and students Baraka is not fighting for the status quo, he is actually representing what the majority of people in Brick City actually want, a democratic impulse that has intentionally been repressed.  That, Mr. Brooks, is why you see Baraka signs all over Newark.  That, Mr. Brooks, is why when I came across Baraka workers or canvassers in Newark I could really feel the emotional weight and momentum behind his candidacy.  You see, that's the messy thing about democracy, the people, not the self-appointed experts like yourself, get to have the final say.

As ridiculous as Brooks' attempts to turn Baraka into a modern-day Eldridge Cleaver might be, his talk of "machine politics" is even more ridiculous.  Baraka is not a political fixer, he is an activist and an educator.  In fact, the biggest political fixer in the area, Democratic boss and Essex County commissioner Joseph DiVincenzo, has thrown his weight behind Jeffries.  Baraka threatens Joe D because he is an independent source, and Baraka is instead allying himself with another promising young urban New Jersey politician, mayor Steve Fulop of Jersey City.  Of course, Brooks doesn't know that, because he doesn't actually seem to know anything about Newark or Essex County politics.  He does however know his usual neo-con narrative, and he tries and fails to cram Newark into it.

Brooks basically lets the cat out of the bag with his last paragraph, a masterpiece of sophistry and cant:

"These contests aren’t left versus center; they are over whether urban government will change or stay the same. Over the years, public-sector jobs have provided steady income for millions of people nationwide. But city services have failed, leaving educational and human devastation in cities like Newark. Reformers like Jeffries rise against all odds from the devastation. They threaten the old stability, but offer a shot at improvement and change."

So basically Brooks thinks Newark is in the state it's in because it pays its city employees too well.  Never mind the deindustrialization that destroyed the city's entire economic foundation.  Never mind the red-lining and "urban renewal" that obliterated neighborhoods or made them impossible to renovate and replaced them with unlivable, inhumane housing projects.   Never mind the fact that suburbanization financed by the federal government via the FHA and interstate highways effectively abetted the disintegration of the city's tax base.  Never mind the fact that much of the destruction during the riots in 1967 was caused by the heavy-handed National Guard response

With that last paragraph Brooks revealed his true intentions.  Like so many others, he simply does not give a shit or care at all about the real people of a very real city that I happen to love very dearly.  No, he cares about Newark as a symbol, as a political talking point, as an exotic locale whose streets he would never walk in a million years.  Newark has a lot of problems, but its biggest problem just might be the people who don't live there. 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

great article. thank you. i live in newark and immediately saw all of the same problems with the piece that you cogently explained.
ideology and politics aside, my biggest problem was that mr. brooks literally does not know what he is talking about.