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Geoffrey Canada Tells Stephen Colbert Racism Has Nothing to Do with the Achievement Gap

The Waiting for Superman star says teachers unions are to blame for everything wrong in public education.

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Why isn’t public education fixed yet? According to the Harlem Children’s Zone founder and Waiting for Superman star Geoffrey Canada, if teachers unions didn’t exist, all would be well in our nation’s schools. Such talk is par for the course for Canada, but on Tuesday night’s episode of The Colbert Report, he added something new to his education reform spiel. Canada claimed that racism has nothing to do with the achievement gap.

When Colbert asked Canada to explain what the achievement gap is, Canada replied, “As soon as we can test kids, we find between a 25- to 35-point difference between white kids and black kids in math and in reading.”


Colbert interrupted to say that that sounded racist. However, according to Canada, a black man who grew up in the Bronx but went to Harvard and now rubs shoulders with Wall Street tycoons, it’s not.

“I think that this is not a matter of racism. This is a matter of some of our kids getting a poor education and we’ve got to hold the adults responsible,” he said.

Maybe Canada has amnesia about how inherently racist institutionalized policies—like redlining—created the modern urban ghetto, and the segregated schools in those ghettos.

In contrast to Canada's beliefs comes a recent New York Times piece about West Farms Elementary School where, “prostitutes roam the streets around the school, waiting for cars entering and leaving the Cross Bronx Expressway. They bend over car windows and climb inside, in plain view of students walking to and from the school.”

The article goes into the details of how the prostitutes have sex, “inside a tent on top of a boulder directly below the school’s playground,” and, “custodians often have to sweep condoms and hypodermic needles from the school grounds before students arrive in the morning."

Teachers and parents have complained for years, but the police say there’s little they can do about the situation outside the low-performing school.

Since Canada believes racism has nothing to do with the achievement gap, would the prostitutes at West Farms Elementary be tolerated if the school was located, for example, in a middle class white neighborhood instead of in the highly racially segregated and poor Bronx? Or are those prostitutes, and the psychological impact seeing them has on students, the fault of the local New York City teachers union, the United Federation of Teachers?

Certainly, whether or not prostitutes handle their business outside the school, teachers at West Farms should hold the students to the highest academic expectations. But it's naive to pretend that seeing prostitutes, drug dealers, gang activity, and other forms of crime common to poor, heavily segregated neighborhoods doesn't have an impact on children of color, or what goes on in their schools.

As expected, Colbert lightened the tone with some great one-liners, joking about how if Waiting for Superman had been named Waiting for Batman, kids at failing schools could throw the bat signal in the air. He also teased Canada on how HCZ’s focus on educating kids from the time they’re born isn’t early enough to make a difference because, “So many of our nation's fetuses only read at the first trimester level."

You can watch the whole interview here:

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Photo (cc) via The Aspen Institute

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via The Howard Stern Show / YouTube

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