By Tom Moran/ The Star-Ledger - www.blog.nj.com/
If you want to blow up a conversation in America, here’s a simple recipe that works every time: Criticize members of the opposite race, add a dash of personal insult, and wait for the explosion.
Gov. Chris Christie nailed it Tuesday at his town hall meeting in Paterson.
There was no malice in what he said. In fact, his core point was undeniably true, and was embraced by the Rev. Reginald Jackson, a hero in the fight against racism in New Jersey.
But none of that mattered. By the end of the day, Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver, the state’s highest-ranking African-American, was beyond furious. A NAACP leader was demanding an apology. And Sen. Ron Rice (D-Essex) was comparing the governor to Bull Connor, as if Christie had unleashed the dogs on peaceful demonstrators.
"I’m going up to Paterson this weekend, and I’m going to meet with people about this," Rice vowed.
It all started Tuesday at a town hall meeting at a black church. The governor was pointing to a grand irony in the fight over education reform in New Jersey. He is the one trying to fix failing urban schools, he said, and he’s a white guy from the suburbs.
"We have an African-American female speaker of the Assembly, who represents communities like East Orange and Orange where there are failing schools all over," he said. "And she refuses to let people vote on this bill."
He was talking about Oliver, who has single-handedly blocked a voucher bill that would give poor kids in failing districts a chance to enroll in private schools of their choice. It’s been stuck in the Legislature for two years, and Oliver still won’t allow a vote.
Yes, you can argue against this bill on the merits, so it’s not a litmus test. But the same pattern holds on other reforms. Democrats dithered on tenure, then watered down the reform until it became acceptable to the teachers unions.
That kind of complacency is hard to stomach when half the kids in some urban districts don’t make it through high school. Where is the fierce urgency?
The governor went on: "Why is it taking a Republican governor from the suburbs to stand up and fight the teachers union and the urban political machine to say, ‘Hey, I want to give you a shot. I want to give your children a shot.’ "
Where did Christie get this argument? He lifted it from Jackson, who has been preaching this message for years.
"The governor was saying that what has held up action on this is African-American legislators, and that’s true," Jackson said. "I don’t think he was in any way being racially derogatory.
"I am basically like Malcolm X when it comes to educating our children: By any means necessary."
As for the politics, let’s face it: This is the only card Christie has when it comes to the urban poor. He has raised taxes on the working poor, raided funds for affordable housing and cut access to health programs. And Paterson schools, run by the state, are still struggling.
Vouchers are often more popular among blacks than whites. In Milwaukee and Cleveland, where vouchers were born, the sponsors were black legislators from poor neighborhoods. And that makes sense: Their kids are the ones who are trapped.
But when you talk about race, it’s easy to blow it. For one, the governor picked on Oliver but gave a pass to white Democrats, who are just as complacent.
Still, this might have worked if he could have claimed that he and Oliver were friends. And that just ain’t so.
Christie once called her a liar, and he didn’t apologize even after he was proven wrong. Then he was caught on tape at a GOP fundraiser in Colorado bragging that he saved Oliver’s speakership after she called him in a panic, begging for help. Oliver called it an outright lie.
"It’s impossible for me to work with this governor," she said then.
So the governor planted the seeds for Oliver’s acidic response to his comments Tuesday in Paterson.
"I have never, nor will I ever, reference the governor’s ethnicity, or make a veiled reference to the color of his skin, yet that’s exactly what Gov. Christie did today when discussing me, as if it was the 19th century," she said in a statement. "Governor — if you have a problem with me, call me by name."
Ouch. Assemblyman Troy Singleton, an African-American supporter of the voucher bill, said Oliver recently signaled that she was open to a pilot program for vouchers. But maybe not now.
"It sets us backward," Singleton said. "There was some movement from the Speaker, and now the governor has interjected race and gender, and that clouds it. It makes it difficult to have an earnest conversation."
If Singleton is right, then Tuesday’s kerfuffle will cause collateral damage among only one group — poor kids in failing school districts, almost all of them black or Latino.
And so it often goes with the toxic discussion of race in America.