If you follow mainstream American news media, chances are that you’ve heard about Bridgegate. Basically, 2 of the 3 lanes which connect Fort Lee, New Jersey to the George Washington Bridge were closed for 4 days in September. While the closure was explained as a “traffic study,” it has since been revealed that the lanes were actually closed to punish Fort Lee’s mayor for refusing to endorse the Republican governor of New Jersey, Chris Christie, in the then-upcoming gubernatorial elections. Fort Lee was gnarled in traffic; affecting, among other things, school buses transporting children to and from school and emergency vehicles. Christie’s role in the scandal is still being investigated and debated. But it is clear that at least some of the people close to him understood the lane closures to be a form of political retribution. The mayor and people of Fort Lee were punished for exercising their democratic rights.
Most people outside of New Jersey, however, have probably not heard about a similar controversy surrounding school closures in Newark. The Newark school district has been under state control since 1995 and a white, Christie-appointed, TFA alum, Cami Anderson, has served as Superintendent since 2011. Anderson and the state takeover in general are extremely unpopular in Newark and there has been sustained community pressure to regain local control of the school district. In September, however, just a few days before the lane closures in Fort Lee, Christie confirmed that he would reappoint Anderson as superintendent, despite community criticism. A direct quote from the governor: “I don’t care about the community criticism. We run the school district in Newark, not them.”
After her reappointment, Anderson unveiled “One Newark,” her master plan for the school district. As is increasingly common in urban education, her plan included charter expansion and the closure or consolidation of 12 schools (in a district of only about 100 schools). As is also unfortunately common in urban education nationally, the schools were selected for political reasons. Many slated for closure or privatization were neither under-achieving nor under-utilized but had disproportionately large black and low-income student populations. Last month, 4 disgruntled principals spoke out against Anderson’s plan at a community meeting and were swiftly suspended indefinitely.
There are many parallels between Newark and Fort Lee. Newark, like Fort Lee, votes Democrat. Where the people of Fort Lee were punished for exercising their democratic right to vote, the people of Newark have been denied their democratic right to have a say in how their school district operates. As the mayor of Fort Lee was targeted for opposing Christie, 5 Newark principals (one of whom did not speak at the community meeting) have been punished for opposing Anderson. And in both cases, the people doling out the punishment are serving at the whim (and perhaps carrying out the orders) of governor Christie.
So why is it that you’ve probably heard about Bridgegate but you have probably not heard about the Newark school uproar? Why is the media picking up on one story but not the other? Certainly it’s not due to lack of drama. Christie has a well-deserved reputation for blunt and combative rhetoric but to say that he doesn’t “care about the community” of the most populous city in the state of which he is governor is pretty outrageous even for him. Why isn’t the gaff and scandal obsessed mainstream media pouncing on the Newark story which is full of both?
The answer: race and class.
First, Fort Lee is almost half white and one-third Asian (most of whom are Korean or Chinese). Blacks and Latinos only compose 3% and 11% of Fort Lee’s population respectively. Newark, on the other hand, is overwhelmingly black and brown. Blacks are over half of Newark’s population and Latinos are about a third. Only 12% of Newark residents are white. Put simply, the media is much more interested in a story about white rights being undermined than a story about black and brown rights being undermined.
Second, while Fort Lee residents are probably not quite suffering from Affluenza, Fort Lee is much wealthier than Newark. The average income in Fort Lee (about $46k per year) is almost three times that of Newark (about $17k per year). The media would certainly rather focus attention on a white, lower-middle class community than a poor black one.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, what is happening in Newark has become normalized. Newark schools have been under state control for almost 2 decades. Nationally, it is no longer uncommon for a school district with large numbers of low-income and/or students of color to be taken over by the state. While many residents may still want local control, those cries don’t catch the media’s attention like they did 10 years ago. And while Michelle Rhee’s plans to close and charterize DC schools grabbed national headlines in 2008, shuttering and privatizing poor, black and brown schools seems to have become the unremarkable norm.
The other reason that Bridgegate has been getting the attention that it has is that Chris Christie had been seen as a likely candidate in 2016 presidential election. Since the story broke, his approval ratings have tanked and people are rightfully reconsidering his aptitude to lead. Mainstream media has induced many Americans to reevaluate Christie. Unfortunately for poor and black and brown Americans, we may need to look elsewhere to inform our political positions.