Corruption, Politics and the Race Shame I Should Not Feel

Even though I know logically that one person doesn’t represent a race, community or organization, I still carry the weight of shame for individuals who take advantage of public dollars and children’s resources.

There’s enough shame to go around.

Another education leader (who happens to be black) is accused of using his position on a public school board (that happens to be charter) to put his individual needs above children’s. D’Juan Hernandez, a prominent New Orleans based lawyer and businessman, used a school credit card to charge up to $13,000 worth of expenses including “payments to Tulane University, where his daughter attends, and $500 for plane tickets to Florida, where his family vacationed,” Hechinger reported.

Related: Louisiana charter school CEO racks up thousands in questionable charges to school’s credit card

D'Juan Hernandez

D’Juan Hernandez

Add Hernandez to the growing list of people accused of misusing public funds in New Orleans. Earlier this year, former New Orleans Public School Board Member Ira Thomas pleaded guilty to accepting $5,000 in bribes. Kelly Thompson, former business manager of Langston Hughes Academy, was busted pilfering almost $675,000 in 2010. A Lusher Charter School employee embezzled $25,000 in the 2011-2012 school year. Darrell K. Sims, 55, formerly with the New Orleans Military and Maritime Academy was charged with theft by fraudulent checks in the amount of $31,000 in 2013. Auditors found that an employee of KIPP New Orleans misappropriated two checks totaling almost $70,000 in 2014. And of course we have the oft-aired theft of Ellenese Brooks-Simms, New Orleans School Board member who accepted bribes totaling approximately $140,000 in 2010.

Theft can’t be ascribed to one particular racial or ethnic group. Poor people certainly aren’t the only ones stealing. People steal within any governance structure. So in New Orleans, which happens to be 60 percent black, we shouldn’t be surprised or discouraged that black people are among those who are busted. However, Hernandez’s incidental blackness has real political consequences.

You don’t have to read much into the case for post-Katrina reform to find the Brooks-Simms example. Reformers argue for change by shaming Brooks-Simms (who happens to be black) and by association the New Orleans School board.

Related: When a top NOLA charter won’t reveal its admission test — for kindergarten

New Orleans and other cities need black people in leadership positions because our absence proves that privileged people use individual transgressions to limit black opportunity. I’ve argued for more black, local participation in charter school movement in New Orleans. Hernandez’s actions will become ammunition against that argument.

The political battles for positions of leadership and the power that comes along with them are fierce. And it’s racialized. Reformers have been cast as white and anti-reformers black in the New Orleans education drama. The reality is that black people have never been in a position in which we wanted status quo. Our position in society makes us inherently reformers. Nevertheless, while white reformers can and will leverage Hernandez’s misdeeds, black folk can only shake our heads.

Related: Black college foundation hits brakes on quest to start a blended-learning school

The race problem the reform movement is self-inflicted. Inherent in an agenda to takeover an “urban”district is the idea that locals (who happen to be black) shouldn’t participate in their own recovery.

The New Orleans School board has been a euphemism for black incompetency. The dog whistle language can be heard in statements like, “…the school district was as corrupt as it was incompetent.” In New Orleans, white muckety-mucks of reformers don’t have to say black people aren’t fit for leadership. Pointing to specific cases involving black individuals produces the same effect.

In spite of all the personal failing within various public systems, the Hernandez situation provides more evidence that corruption isn’t limited to traditional elected boards. More importantly, Hernandez may prove that charter school leaders are not beyond ethical reproach. Greedy, desperate and greasy people will steal in any governance model.

However, the Hernandez story affirms people’s biases towards black leadership when it shouldn’t.

Let’s face it. Partisans turn selective cases of personal failing into talking points of a separate argument for seizing control of systems run by black communities. When black is bad, all it takes is one. The bad black teacher, school board member or parent becomes the reason to dismantle entire systems. It becomes okay for the race of the teacher not to matter when it comes to hiring and firing if we’re really talking about the firing black teachers. It’s okay to remove political rights that other districts enjoy if we’re talking about black voters.

The race shame I shouldn’t feel from personal failings has political consequences.

Related: Why Clinton needs to craft a broad, national education vision

To grow up black is to carry a burden of others who look like me. To evolve is to shed that burden. I know that I shouldn’t feel ashamed of Hernandez and others. To feel shame at the Hernandez story is to tacitly accept the idea of the inherent inferiority of black people. This is the brain damage that I have. I intellectually can separate Hernandez’s personal deeds from my racial identity, but I still feel the hurt. This is when I must admit that I have not evolved.

I believe deeply in the idea of a connected black community. I believe in we.

With that said, we have to do better.

[Cross-posted at The Hechinger Report]

Andre Perry

Andre Perry is the founding dean of urban education at Davenport University in Grand Rapids, Mich. and the author of The Garden Path: The Miseducation of a City (2011).