In a flap that erupted Thursday, Mayor Michael Bloomberg has rebutted charges that he was racist when he said a week ago that black and Latino parents “don’t understand” the city school system’s ills. But more recent, as yet unreported mayoral commentary suggests his take on those groups that make up the vast majority of the public school population is elitist at best and possibly, as City Council member Charles Barron has charged, worse.
The conflict began when Barron called a press conference Thursday to denounce remarks made by the mayor on March 12 as “racist and insulting.” To reporters, Bloomberg had explained poll numbers showing majorities of blacks and Latinos opposing direct mayoral control over schools by saying they “fundamentally…don’t understand how poor a job is being done and how their children, unfortunately, are being condemned to a life of not participating in the great American dream,” according to a March 22 Newsday report.
Bloomberg spokesperson Ed Skyler, responding to Barron’s charges, said the mayor “deserves an apology” for the “divisive and disgusting comments,” according to Newsday. “Clearly the council member is more interested in grabbing headlines than he is in having a meaningful dialogue about the education of our children,” Skyler said.
But in apparently unscripted remarks to a roomful of black journalists the evening before Barron’s press conference, Bloomberg pontificated in a way that suggested the councilmember was not too far off the mark.
Bloomberg spoke Wednesday evening before a gathering of the New York Association of Black Journalists at the NBC studios in Rockefeller Plaza. He kicked off the 40-minute Q&A by saying that he would not answer any questions about the future of the officers whose convictions had recently been overturned in the Abner Louima police torture case, a refusal the friendly room accomodated.
He focused the better part of his appearance on one of his young administration’s signature priorities—wresting control of the public school system from the poorly performing Board of Education. But the mayor deflected questions delving for specifics, for instance about his plans for reducing dropout rates, with his trademark manager’s mantra—he delegates, his deputies decide. He justified keeping his remarks general with a somewhat obscure analogy that may reflect his billionaire’s lifestyle. Debating over policy details while the school system foundered in overall crisis, he said, was like “everybody’s having a discussion of whether you should tack to port or tack to starboard” when aboard a ship heading for a pile of rocks.
But it was not long before he launched into a riff that, if it lacked detailed policy, at least implied some philosophy with serious connotations. “You show me a school where parents care, and I’ll show you a good school,” he said. The divorced multibillionaire, whose two grown daughters have enjoyed some of the best private schooling money can buy, spoke of problems that particularly challenge New York City’s schools, mentioning “one-parent or no-parent” families and a large pool of non-English-speaking immigrants.
Unbidden, he digressed into a rant on bilingual education, saying he preferred “total immersion” in English and quipping that certain teachers “couldn’t get a job” if there were no bilingual classes to teach because their own English skills were deficient. The Upper East Side townhouse owner spoke with near wonder of the city’s ethnic diversity, informing the audience of journalists that not only Spanish but also languages such as Korean and Russian were spoken widely here, “in this day and age.”
Skyler told the Voice, “He was engaged in a frank discussion of the challenges facing the school system. We received very positive feedback from the meeting.”
NYABJ president Errol Cockfield told the Voice, “NYABJ . . . only takes public stands on issues of journalistic freedom and diversity in media,” not on education policy or mayoral politics. But the mood at the event remained warm throughout, and as Cockfield noted, there were murmurs of disappointment when it was announced the mayor had to leave.
Bloomberg may owe his notoriously press-bashing predecessor for the reporters’ charity. “This is the second time Bloomberg’s met with black journalists in 11 weeks,” said Cockfield. “For the black press in particular, Giuliani did not give us this kind of access. Bloomberg’s trying to set a new tone, clearly. For the African American press here in the city, that’s comforting. Folks are cautiously optimistic, of course, because he’s new in office, but I think it’s something that’s encouraging.”