Sometimes we get a taste of truth from the most unlikely places. It happened last Thursday in The Post and Courier.
In a parting interview with former Charleston County Superintendent of Education Maria Goodloe-Johnson, reporter Diette Courrégé asked some very brave questions — and Goodloe-Johnson gave some very honest answers.
Goodloe-Johnson is taking a big step up, leaving violence-plagued, academically-challenged Charleston County Schools after four years to take the helm of Seattle public schools. Her tenure here has been a controversial one. She was attacked by right-wing Christians for her lifestyle and had heated confrontations with school board members.
Goodloe-Johnson is an educated outsider who passed our way and left her mark on public education. And she is black. With that in mind, Courrégé cut to the chase in her June 14 interview.
“You’ve lived in Texas, Colorado, and Nebraska,” Courrégé said. “How does Charleston compare?”
Goodloe-Johnson was blunt: “It’s by far the most segregated and racist, and I think that’s a function of the South, too.”
Courrégé asked how Goodloe-Johnson felt about the legacy of slavery and how it affects the school district.
In a rambling answer, Goodloe-Johnson said she sees a “plantation mentality” at work in much of the black community. “And by that I mean that people tend to be too complacent. They sit back and allow things to happen to them, and that’s slavery. … That’s plantation mentality and it’s so obvious here … Fight to be at the table and to be part of the conversation. Nobody is enslaved anymore. This is 2007. You can go and do anything you want to.”
The plantation mentality also exists among whites, she said. She can see it in attitudes and assumptions many whites still hold toward blacks. “African-American folks need to speak up and be a part of the equation and say, ‘That’s not good enough.’ … It shouldn’t be about who has voice, and I see so many things happen that I’m, like, ‘This is 2007. It’s not appropriate.'”
Ah, yes. I’ve been saying it for years.
Goodloe-Johnson returned to the subject of “voice.” Voice is what white people in the South have historically denied black people. Without voice there is no political power, and without power there are no civil rights, no quality education.
One of the ways whites controlled blacks in the Jim Crow South was to segregate public education and fund black schools at a much lower rate than they funded white schools. They understood that education gives voice and voice gives power.
It still does. But today we see education becoming re-segregated through a variety of strategies and we see black schools being under-funded throughout the state.
“We should not be in a situation anywhere where kids are not given what they need because they don’t have parents who have voice or who have political clout or come to school board meetings and make noise,” Goodloe-Johnson said. “We have a responsibility to insure that poor kids, that black kids are educated well. We shouldn’t have the divides that we do. And that’s all about people not having voice. Just think about it, if everybody had voice, how different the school district would be.”
Indeed, how different the world would be.
She leaves behind a mixed legacy, but while she hardly solved all of Charleston County Schools’ problems, those problems were decades in the making and no mortal could have solved them in four years. It should also be said that in the first three years of her tenure she had to deal with some rather malignant personalities on the school board.
Courrégé asked Goodloe-Johnson if race had been at the root of some of the ugly attacks and innuendos that former board members had leveled at her.
“Absolutely,” she answered. “People made issues of things because of my race and said things relative to my race that were quite honestly bigoted and biased.”
On the negative side of the ledger, two white teachers successfully sued the school district for allowing a racially hostile work environment in the public schools. A third suit is still in the courts. How much did Goodloe-Johnson know about these conditions? What did she do to correct them? Goodloe-Johnson has not been directly tied to these situations, but it does raise the troubling question: If she didn’t know about them, what kind of an administrator was she?
But either way, black students and administrators creating a hostile environment for white teachers is just the opposite side of the same old coin that has been our currency for more than three centuries. It is race that continues to define us and divide us. White South Carolina is still absorbed with its Confederate folly, with its vainglorious past, with self-delusion and denial. A broken school system is just one symptom of the pathology which afflicts this state.