Kwabena "Cubby" Nkromo
When the Atlanta Public Schools’ cheating scandal fully broke in the news, I was asked by a friend who works at Morehouse to write a piece that expressed my personal understanding of the controversy. I had immediate suspicions regarding the source of the problem, but decided to withhold comment until more information had been revealed. The thing that continued to stump me was the uncharacteristic behavior of my long time friend and public service colleague, Khaatim S. El. While all other players in the unfolding tragic drama seemed like “usual suspects”, I was hard pressed to understand the suddenly aggressive and frantic actions of an erstwhile mild mannered gentleman. Khaatim’s outrage and erratic response to the early stages of the scandal was the real “canary in the mine shaft” for me.
When Mr. El agreed to step down as Chairperson and suddenly resigned from the Board of Education, I knew we would begin to learn more truth as to what had really happened with the scandal. True to form, he simultaneously issued a statement that included both a swan song retort to his critics as well as posed numerous pointed questions for the community of wounded Atlanta Public Schoolfamilies and taxpayers to consider. In finally committing to write this essay, my intent is to both share my interpretation of what happened in our schools and offer answers to Khaatim’s rhetorical interrogatories.
Whether implicit or explicitly designed, there appears to have been a conspiracy to sacrifice the authentic education of an entire generation of Black children on the altar of commercial gain for mostly white developers and relatively minor graft by Black public school administrators or contractors. Many people had something to gain from the self-serving appearance of African American academic success within Atlanta Public Schools rather than the actual development of our children and preparing them for survival in an increasingly competitive world economy. The essentially open theft of public resources intended for public education and the rape visited upon our children’s futures by the cheating debacle are the tip of an iceberg that seems to go much deeper and wider than many privileged elite in Atlanta(Black and white) would like to have disclosed. This is how I see it.
A Declaration of Black Inferiority
Even for the lay person, there are two startling obvious suppositions that can be inferred from the criminal and immoral behavior of the education “professionals” involved with the changing of students’ tests and other academic improprieties. On the surface, it seems painfully obvious that the inanely simple objective of the cheating activity was to give the false appearance of dramatically improved student performance. This begs the question: Why didn’t the teachers and administrators involved choose to actually educate our children instead of cheating, thereby achieving the same results in the end?
Dr. Beverly Hall & APS Board members
Academic dishonesty is not like other kinds of criminal behavior. If one wants to run a financial ponzi scheme for instance, there are few other ways to do it other than lying to investors and providing false financial statements. No matter how much a true Wall Street guru that he may have been on some level, Bernard Madoff could never fully control the seemingly infinite variables of the modern financial markets to secure the results he deceived his clients into believing he had procured for them. With educational fraud however, you are basically taking a short cut to “steal” something that could actually be accomplished the old fashioned way. In other words, Dr. Hall and her underlings could have chosen to teach more of our children instead of cheat them.
Pickaninny images from Hollywood used to portray Black children as subordinate & inferior to the white race
The first inference we could logically make then is that on some conscious or sub-conscious plane of self-hate, our Black instructional professionals did not believe that our children were capable of learning at the level required by the federal testing standards of No Child Left Behind and other regressive public policy attacks that are counter-intuitive in nature. This implicit Declaration of Black Inferiority (DBI) imposed upon the flower of our youth is reminiscent of the worst aspects of white supremacy doctrines, but certainly far more insidious in its belief and application by African Americans entrusted with the intellectual welfare of our future. Even with all benefit of the doubt granted for undue pressure embodied in the federal and state unfunded mandates, there is no way to excuse the choice of teachers and administrators to opt for a damning path of least resistance rather than the dutiful journey of fulfilling their mandate as educators. They wholly and menacingly failed us all.
Secondly, we have to wonder whether these college-trained scions of DuBois’ fabled Talented Tenth were ever convinced that they knew how to do their jobs. Perhaps combined with a debilitating assumption of our children’s inherent limitations, the persons involved in conducting and/or orchestrating the cheating may secretly know that they are incapable of doing the very thing they were employed to do. As a trade educator myself, I know well that not every one who is in a position to teach can actually do so. As most do who are hiding a tragic secret, it is also possible that many involved in the scandal compounded their conviction that Black babies can’t learn with their own closeted reality of incompetence. Why else, I ask, would they choose not to do the right thing at such high risk to their careers and freedom unless they thought the right thing was practically impossible to make manifest? I don’t like saying this about us, but it rings true to me.
Development: Atlanta’s Main Industry & Vice
Atlanta: Too Busy to Hate?
Many around the country must be scratching their heads in bewilderment, trying to understand how a city came to shoot itself in the foot in such a poetically tragic way. “Did not Atlanta just elect an apparently bright and promising young Mayor in the person of Kasim Reed?” they may wonder. “Hadn’t the ‘Black Mecca’ left behind the maddening self-defeating shenanigans of the Bill Campbell era with the less than perfect, but relatively competent and efficacious terms of Mayor Shirley Franklin?” For those of us who sojourned to Atlanta years ago under the allure of a mythological Black ‘promised land’, the glitter of the Dirty South had long proven itself to be less than 24 carat gold when it came to authentic African American empowerment.
Who Rules Atlanta?
One of the high points of my friendship with Khaatim was receiving a gift from him on my 39th birthday. As co-members of the West End Rotary Club, we often discussed the vagaries of Atlanta politics and civic life over pleasant lunch meetings at Pascals restaurant. One such discussion involved my confession of being perplexed by the behavior of many Atlanta Black politicos that seemed to belie the cities reputation of producing strong, independent progressive African American leadership. In what seemed almost like a gesture of pity rather than edification, Khaatim ordered a book for me through Amazon.com called, “Regime Politics: Governing Atlanta, 1946-1988“ (Clarence N. Stone). Like no other explanation ofAtlanta’s history and habits I’d learned before, this book opened my eyes to the reality of the New South.
This is an essay about an education crisis and is not meant to be a history lesson or too much of political science. Nevertheless, two salient pieces of information are helpful in understanding the complicity of Atlanta’s white power structure in the still unfolding public schools scandal. One is that lacking many local industries and natural resources besides people, Atlanta’s economy and privileged wealth is fueled by development (second only perhaps to the tourism/convention/prostitution industry group). The developers build things, with expectations (or mere hopes) that the people will come. People are generally connected to families and nuclear families often have children that need to be educated. As any real estate agent worth her salt will tell you, one of the most critical elements of home acquisition selection by prospective buyers is the quality of an area’s public schools.
The second thing to know is what I learned from the book Khaatim gifted to me. The following except summarizes the basic dynamic at play between Atlanta’s white and Black political and business elite:
The Atlanta Compromise
“From the end of Georgia’s white primary in 1946 to the present, Atlanta has been a community of growing black electoral strength and stable white economic power. Yet the ballot box and investment money never became opposing weapons in a battle for domination. Instead, Atlanta experienced the emergence and evolution of a biracial coalition. Although beset by changing conditions and significant cost pressures, this coalition has remained intact. At critical junctures forces of cooperation overcame antagonisms of race and ideology.
On the negative side of the political ledger, Atlanta’s style of civic cooperation is achieved at a cost. Despite an ambitious program of physical redevelopment, the city is second only to Newark, New Jersey, in the poverty rate. Social problems, conflict of interest issues, and inattention to the production potential of a large lower class bespeak a regime unable to address a wide range of human needs. No simple matter of elite domination, it is a matter of governing arrangements built out of selective incentives and inside deal-making; such arrangements can serve only limited purposes. The capacity of urban regimes to bring about elaborate forms of physical redevelopment should not blind us to their incapacity to address deeply rooted social problems.”
For me, the nexus between these two socio-economic dynamics best explains the sell out of Atlanta’s Public School System and by extension this city’s children. Collusion by commission or omission is still a sin, and the actors within Atlanta’s privileged political and business elite have a lot to answer for to a power higher than us all. Nevertheless, we also have a job to do as taxpayers and citizens of this still great southern city. Given that the Board of Education is the local governing body for the early learning life of our most precious and vulnerable charges as a community, all who are able bodied and of sound mind should be running for the open seat (in a sense). Of course, we are all called in different and capable of different things. I am able and willing to serve, which is why I am a candidate for the Special Election for the District 2 seat.
The Soul of Atlanta
The departing statement that Khaatim issued and read at his last board meeting was so cryptically mesmerizing and insightful that it would not do it justice to avoid representing it largely in tact. I choose to close this analysis with the considerable sized except below from his commentary, which will be followed by my best answers to his haunting questions:
Khaatim S. El, resigning from the Atlanta Board of Education
“It remains to be seen, however, whether the soul of Atlanta has been truly stirred – Atlanta is facing a genuine crisis of character, character that is decaying because of fear, intimidation and retaliation.
I believe three questions should haunt Atlanta for the foreseeable future:
1) Why was the cheating scandal so exclusively pronounced for some children and not for others (splitting sharply along racial lines) and yet equal in its mistreatment of the poor and disenfranchised? Why were these children – mostly low income and African-American – so cavalierly denied access to America’s promise?
2) How did we – the elected officials, business leaders, and the system itself – become complicit in, through our actions and in our silence, a deal with the Devil that sold out a generation of children for the sake of the city’s image and the district’s “perception of success?”
3) Who, in the end, benefited from this collusion? Why did powerful people use their positions to punish those who dared to speak out? Why was legislation created to expressly limit the voice of the electorate, the people? What was behind the decision to place into law a provision to “restrict the powers of the Board” as outlined in the APS Charter?
If Atlanta is lucky, these questions will force the community to confront a long overdue and difficult conversation about race, class and power. And while some people will proclaim that we must move forward now to put this episode behind us, for the sake of the kindergarten classes that starts next year and the year after that, Atlanta will have to be uncomfortable for a while before we can truly claim victory.”
Khaatim applauding Dr. Beverly Hall
Atlanta’s “crisis of character” that Khaatim refers to extends beyond its dearth of authentic concern for our children. The stench of a complacency culture and municipal malfeasance ranks in too many of our schools, neighborhood associations, NPU’s, City Council and the Mayor’s Office, colleges and universities, non-profit organizations, and churches. But it is enough of a tragedy to consider the questions he poses in relationship to our collective charge as an urban village to be guardians of the children, our proverbial future. Here is where we stand in my mind in corresponding order to Khaatim’s numbered items:
1) In Atlanta’s juggernaut pursuit if progress, profit and regional competition to be the leader of the New South, poor Black people (and their children) continue to stubbornly be considered cheap labor and raw material for poverty industry grants at best and persistently expendable at the worst extremes of de facto public and private policy (See “Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to WWII” by Douglas A. Blackmon). However even though the cheating activity was focused in predominately African American areas, the impact will affect all children of the city of all ethnicities. Therefore, we must all work together on the solution.
2) In a more succinct version of what is described earlier in the essay, the APS cheating scandal is a logical (even if diabolical) extension of the ruling compromise that has governed modernAtlanta. Wealthy mostly white property owners, corporate elites, and developers retain core ownership of the city while outsourcing most of its management to a relatively small inner circle of privileged and xenophobic Black intelligentsia and politicos. Being as generous as possible, perhaps the downtown Chamber of Commerce simply demanded higher scores of it lackeys without determining precisely how this poisonous policy was to be carried out. Either way, the result was a clear determination by APS staff and administrators at the highest level to perpetuate the myth ofAtlanta’s universal shiny appeal at all costs and by any means necessary.
3) In the end, practically no one will benefit from this ill conceived project. Due to the cheating scandal’s now very public and liable failure, many who stood to gain directly from its parallel dimension success will now likely suffer devastating consequences. Even the puppet masters have lost like a bad day inLas Vegas, ironically tarnishingAtlanta’s image further rather falsifying it in a positive light. The reason why powerful people have moved to punish those to try to expose the truth is because that’s what most governing regimes do in order to retain power and control. Lastly, legislation was enacted to diminish the power of the people because our current elected representatives invited the re-colonization of our communities by State government through their utter incompetence and dysfunctional behavior.
Mayor Maynard Jackson, the "Godfather" of Black Atlanta
Contrary to Khaatim’s somewhat cavalier summation, I don’t believe that Atlanta’s future has anything to do with luck. Our best path forward will be hard won through a series of painful conversations, disclosures, and ultimately decisions to repent as a city and make things right. Conversations in America (particularly in the South) about race, class, and power have seldom been conducted in the real world of public policy without conflict and a will by true liberals to fight for the greatest good. We will have forfeited progressive victory in this case as a community if we choose to bypass real change in exchange for continued delusions and the status quo.
My son Kwesi, waiting
I have two young children and one (my son Kwesi) is now in Atlanta Public Schools, so I am a vested stakeholder in how this story will end. As a subject of the busing traumas of integration withinBoston’s public schools during my youth, I know too well the impact adults decisions can have on the lives of those who are too young to decide for themselves. In talking recently with a student returning to Benjamin E. Mays High School for her Senior year, I found her deeply disappointed by the scandal but also undaunted in her determination to be accepted my Emory University and pursue a career in medicine. So on behalf of this future doctor and my own babies, I remain committed to fighting for change on her behalf and necessarily hopeful that things will be far better for Kwesi and Issata (my children) by the time they are close to graduation. There is no other choice for a faithful father and responsible citizen.
Kwabena “Cubby” Nkromo is resident of the Pittsburgh neighborhood within Southwest Atlanta and is candidate for the Special Election to fill the vacancy left by Khaatim S. El on the Atlanta Public School Board of Education, District 2.