The Richmond Elite’s Bizarre Self Image

richmond-times-dispatchBy Peter Galuszka

If one wants to know one source of Richmond’s malaise, she or he need look no further than the pages of the Richmond Times Dispatch, the mouthpiece of the city’s elite. This is especially true when one reads this morning’s edition. The inadvertent revelations about the city and what is wrong with its leadership are stunning.

Some background. Last week, Style Weekly, an alternative newspaper in the city, published a hard-hitting cover story taking a ground-up view of just how awful and neglected the city’s school buildings and system are. The coverage is very much contrary to the image Richmond’s “leadership” wants to sell about the city.

As the schools are mismanaged and families are abused, the Richmond elite, and the RTD’s editors are pushing other pet projects such as building a new baseball stadium in historic Shockoe Bottom to replace a crumbling one elsewhere and a chamber of commerce trip to Tampa by 159 “leaders” to learn how another city works.

Full disclosure: I am a contributing editor at Style but had no input to the school story. I did file two blog postings about the schools story and received a number of highly insightful comments by readers. The basic problem, as several put it, is that  the schools are a mess is that the middle class has moved to the suburbs, the upper class sends its children to private schools and many of those left aren’t in a position to join the debate are have much influence. One out of every four people living in the city is poor.

The TD’s coverage today is a wonderful blueprint about exactly what is wrong with the elite’s thinking. Examples:

  • The front page features a catch-up story featuring short 125 word essays written by seven city council members and nine school board members. Three council members, Reva Trammell, Michelle R. Mosby and Cynthia Newbill – didn’t respond, perhaps wisely. The story states that judging from the responses, “momentum is building” for “substantive change.” The council, the school board and the mayor are working together. Mind you, this is not based on any real reporting—such as shoe leather in the school halls. Instead, one gets to read what the leadership responsible for the horrific problems thinks about them – sort of like interviewing the foxes after they raid the chicken coop. An added extra: the RTD claims it sent out its questionnaires before Style published its story, sort of like backdating stock options.
  • Flip to the “Commentary” section and a piece by John W. Martin, CEO and president of the “Southeastern Institute of Research in Richmond and frequent opinions contributor to the TD. His piece is basically an extended apology for proposing a new stadium in the middle of the blooded ground of the country’s second-largest slave market – standard stuff. Especially bizarre is the art. It is a cartoon drawing of what appears to be an interracial couple happily walking near what could be a combined slave memorial ballpark. The man is white, blond, wears a Richmond polo shirt and is flipping a baseball. His arm is around an African-American woman in sports togs and carrying designer shopping bags. In front is an apparently mixed-race child in a Flying Squirrels baseball cap happily holding out his glove to catch the ball from dad. The effect is downright creepy. It insults the intelligence of the readers and hits a very sensitive raw nerve, given Richmond’s sad history of race relations and the TD’s historic support of segregation five decades ago when it really mattered.
  • Let’s move to the Op-ed page where there is piece by Nancy Bagranoff, dean of the University of Richmond business school and upcoming chair of the Greater Richmond Chamber of Commerce. She was part of the chamber’s trip to Tampa to “learn” how they do it (while Richmond’s school buildings crumble). Her important takeaways seem to be that Tampa puts lights on its bridges, that it is a big port city, the region has distinctive personalities and that there are some universities there. Her conclusion: “I fell love with Tampa during out visit, but “I’m still married to Richmond.” Now that is extremely helpful.
  • Lastly, there is an impenetrable story by TD publisher Thomas A. Silvestri about several fictitious people discussing Tampa. Unsure of the point, I read the endline bio of Silvestri. It says he used to head the chamber and did not go on the Tampa trip because he’s been there before.

So, there you have it folks. Instead of real reporting, you have Richmond’s elite, some of whom are responsible for the problems, interviewing themselves. And that is a big reason why the city is in such a huge mess.

11 Responses to The Richmond Elite’s Bizarre Self Image

  1. I much appreciate both Peter’s knowledge and insight of issues but also his journalistic skill in telling the story.

    I’m conflicted by the school issue not only in Richmond but other urban places as well as in some counties.

    I think all cities have their versions of “elites” but I know of few that actually take on the tougher issue of poverty and schools. I sometimes think of Michelle Rhee’s attempts to make changes – almost independent of what others thought – and eventually to her own failures.

    but I have this developing view that schools in urban cores are not that different from counties like Henrico – and others when it comes to the teaching of and performance of – that demographic – of kids with uneducated and incapable parents who are not nurtured and “pre-taught” reading like kids of well-educated, economically stable parents.

    The primary difference between suburban and urban is the sheer numbers of these “at risk” kids. In most suburban schools, these at-risk kids don’t fare much better if there are not specific programs to deal with their needs – beyond the Federal Title programs which don’t come near to funding all that is needed.

    so you need more resources to deal with kids who are “under” parented. We know what kind are needed. In K-3, they’re called reading and math “specialists”. They invariably have Masters Degrees and they know they are starting from square one with the kids they teach. There is no “get Mom/Dad to help you with your homework”.Some of these kids live with grandma or other relatives – as their parents are either AWOL or working so many hours at low paying jobs that they’re not able to do what parents in better economic circumstance are able to do.

    But if you look at the test scores in suburban (and rural) schools of kids who are classified as economically disadvantaged – there is a pattern – they generally score lower .. as much as ten points and more – lower. And it’s the same scores you see in urban places like Richmond – the difference being that there are so many more of them .. virtually entire schools.

    We – as a society – the “we” that is economically ok/stable have a pathological frustration with this problem. Essentially we do not think that
    “we” should “own” a problem that is caused by irresponsible parenting and de-facto unionized teachers who lack the skills and/or motivation to deal with kids in poor demographic and economic circumstances.

    when you drill down to this level of the problem – I’m not surprised that city “elites” are more interested in other issues!

    this is the physical equivalent of a swamp with alligators and poisonous snakes and anyone who truly tries to do something is entertaining a death wish of sorts.

    and .. we’ve more or less given up on our educational institutions – to solve this problem by themselves without outside interference which then allows dumbasses in the General Assembly to believe that what is needed is more religion, more history about our forefathers and more physical exercise and the such.

    and no.. it’s NOT fair that this problem falls on everyone but we basically have no choice but to deal with the problem because every child that grows up functionally illiterate is not only not going to become a self-supporting taxpayer .. and instead need entitlements from others who did grow up educated but worse – these folks are going to have kids of their own and repeat the cycle.

    there are no easy answers – but to do nothing – to continue to ignore the problem does not bode well for the future of this country and it’s especially disheartening when we see all other OECD countries doing better on this.

    so .. no I do not blame the ‘elites’… “elities” get to do “fun” things .. where failure is just not going forward another step or two .. instead falling back further on something that is already a disaster.

  2. Pingback: The Richmond Elite’s Bizarre Self Image – Bacon’s Rebellion | Kooky Ideas

  3. Holy, moly, Peter, I’m gone less than 24 hours and you’ve already launched a putsch! I’ll have to come back from San Francisco and stop out this takeover of Bacon’s Rebellion. But, wait, no, that’s what the blog is all about. Long live the Rebellion!

    Once again, you make a valid overall point: that Richmond’s political and civic leadership is focused on the effluvia rather than the substance of the city and region’s problems. Frankly, it strikes me that Nancy Bagranoff’s column is notable mainly for how little useful information was gleaned from the Tampa trip. It’s not that her thoughts are wrong or misguided, it’s that they are irrelevant (as a huge port, Tampa is more relevant to Norfolk than Richmond) or small-bore (lights on the water are a great idea but hardly transformative).

    I do disagree with your assessment of John Martin’s observations on the proposed slavery museum. (Full disclosure: I used to work for him.) I thought he advanced the discussion of the museum way beyond the bland generalities that we have seen so far: (1) there are loads of African-American heritage sights around the country already, (2) few of them are doing well; and (3) there’s more big competition to come. He also observes that the sites that have done well are tied to surrounding development and have strong ties to the community.

    Martin’s column could be read as a powerful cautionary statement: Do the Richmond slavery museum right, or don’t do it at all. The chances of success aren’t very good. The city of Richmond and the philanthropic community could wind up squandering tens of millions of dollars on a highly visible failure. I think Martin deserves credit for speaking a truth that is sure to be unwelcome in many quarters.

  4. I just don’t think it makes much sense to expect the “elites” to tackle something as tough as failed urban school systems. It’s just unrealistic and all too convenient in shifting blame.

    We have a problem. We have significant populations of kids who are not as easy to teach as kids who come from more nurturing/supportive parental circumstances.

    it’s wrong.. but if we ignore it – it gets much, much worse because such kids grow up and things get even worse.

    we just refuse to own this problem and continue to look for others to blame.

    You can go look for any school in Virginia how many economically disadvantaged kids are in that school (thanks to George Bush’s NCLB ) but tell me how many schools can you find out if they have enough qualified teachers specifically trained to teach those kids.

    In a perfect world.. one might presume that if 30% of the student population is economically disadvantaged that 30% of the teaching staff would be skilled in teaching that demographic but I strongly suspect that’s not the case – especially in Richmond and there are no elites that are going to fix it.

    we (all of us) have make bad choices with our schools, over time, and essentially ignored the kids with more difficult needs .. catering to the kids who do have nurturing parents. We teach the harder ones – on the cheap. We watch them fail to master K-5 academics and move into high school as functional illiterates who either drop out or graduate as economic cripples with direct consequences to the kids who were “nurtured” through school.

    I don’t mean to be this harsh about it but until “we” face the reality of what is really really going on… and stop looking for others ( like “elites”) to blame.. it’s not going to get better.

    we have kids who are harder to teach and if we fail to teach them, they’re going to grow up to rely on entitlements – paid for by kids we did teach well.

    every single person, whether you have kids or not – should see this threat that we face and the consequences of failing to deal with the problem.

    Jim Bacon thinks we lack the will balance our budget.. to be fiscally responsible and we bleat incessantly about what kind of boomergeddon world will be left to “the kids”.

    And I agree with Jim but it’s our failure to understand the consequences of our current approach to education that concerns me more because if we have more and more adults who are so deficient in education that they require entitlements to survive – we ARE headed for boomergeddon.

    this goes right back to Richmond.

    how many kids in the Richmond school system are going to grow up and require entitlements? Is it essentially the number that are now in school that are classified as economically disadvantaged?

    would it be a good thing if Richmond “elites” took this on?

    yes.

    how realistic is that and what is PlanB if they do not? just find others to blame?

  5. It seemed to me like Martin’s column answered the wrong question. I had not previously heard the question, how do we make a Richmond slavery museum that is a national tourist attraction?

    In fact, is that actually the goal? Effectively memorializing the history of slavery in Richmond doesn’t mean we have to make it a national tourist destination – and memorializing it in a respectful, accurate, and compelling manner can be done in a variety of ways, at a whole range of price points. Why can’t we be creative?

    One example that would have a very low price point – could we have memorials, plaques, and outside dioramas at key spots – including key spots that are now built over, indicating where lost buildings once stood – that people can see on walking tours? What about an app, with geolocation, that you could use on a driving or walking or Segway tour?

    Could local businesses or groups give the tours? Can we get a downtown business near a historic spot – or maybe contract with one of the state or local government buildings that already exist – to dedicate one room for artifacts and another for educational films about the history of slavery in Richmond?

    We could do that fast, flexible, and not expensive, and if done well, it would be pretty cool and it would really happen. The tours could be private and there could be a guidebook for self-tours.

    Think of the walking and driving and horseback riding tours at Gettysburg – you have local businesses that provide the guides for those who want them, but they’re also available for free if you use a guidebook. They also have DVD tours where you can pop the DVD into your car and drive all over the city and the park.

    App tours with geolocation are an easy next step. They’re also much cheaper than a ballpark.

    To me, the Martin article seemed more like a way to justify doing something big to support something small in the most expensive possible way.

    Why don’t we focus on what we want to do, rather than proxy it?

    • Also, what about linking it in to other museums? What about an exhibition of historical art about slavery and civil rights at the Virginia Museum? What about linking a slavery history walk and exhibit with exhibits at the historical museums? Restaurants that are in historically important locations?

      You could also use a starter site to raise funds for a bigger site, if the interest is there. Rather than overbuild to start, treat it like a business – scale to what you can support to begin with, prove yourself, do meaningful things, and use that to grow.

      • I’m a skeptic of Slave museums of any kind… having just watched one fail in Fredericksburg that had been given free land next to I-95 and had Bill Cosby and Doug Wilder supporting it and fundraising.

        But they had enough for lawyers to try to keep the land and sell it to the highest bidder rather than use it for the given purpose.

        and totally agree with VIRGINIAGAL2. Why not start out modest and regional and if people fall all over themselves to get on board – then great go with the flow but why start with grandiose and expensive?

  6. The Slave Museum that has never happened that seemed to be a “natural” was the one that would have been in Spotsylvania County on a farm that was the plantation depicted in ROOTS.

    it would have seemed to be the place where all people could be shown a replica plantation with slave quarters .. and living history exhibits of slave life.

    that kind of interpretation, in my view, has more appeal than some dry exhibits and signs …

    we have in Fredericksburg, a corner with a slave auction block on it – a places where slaves were actually sold… it’s never been a hot ticket.. site.. although I think the trolley tour goes by it. Everything around it is unconnected to it.. just the typical retail shops that you’d see in any small town.

    http://goo.gl/maps/VsaMR

  7. Jim,
    Martin did explore where slave museums may have worked and did not but at the end of the piece he boosts the Shockoe deal, at least the way I read it. Had he said it needs more study and thought, I would have had another take, but he went along with the Richmond elite.
    BTW, when are you coming back again?

  8. Thursday night!

    I am going to have to work faster in my Putin-like machinations.!

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