‘White guy’ to lead Minneapolis schools

Can a white guy lead the Minneapolis school system?

It’s a stark question and potentially an inflammable one, judging by the reaction to some of the comments made last night when members of the Minneapolis school board picked Ed Graff, a Bemidji, Minn., native and outgoing superintendent of the Anchorage, Alaska schools, over Minnesota Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius.

Graff is white, Cassellius is African-American.

Board member Don Samuels has gotten plenty of attention today for saying that he was initially skeptical of Graff. He was, according to the Star Tribune‘s citation, unhappy the board was considering “a white guy.”

But he says he got to know the soon-to-be superintendent.

“To some degree, he is quite an evolved human being,” Samuels is quoted as saying.

“Ed Graff is white and he knows it very well because he’s been the white guy many times,” Samuels said, according to the Bemidji Pioneer.

A little more context, courtesy of MinnPost:

Board Member Don Samuels said Graff’s communication style, willingness to put himself in vulnerable situations, and experience living and teaching on Native American reservations put many of his initial concerns to rest.

“I think if he has a relationship with the Native American community, it will translate effectively to the African-American community,” he said. “I think I can go out on a limb and say, to some degree, he is quite an evolved human being.”

Board member Rebecca Gagnon echoed Samuel’s sentiments. “I think we have someone with unique ability and integrity and student focus. He says it a million times because he lives it to his core.”

Samuels, who is not white, was one of six votes for Graff.

  • Mike Worcester
    • Kassie

      I think it means he’s woke.

      • BJ

        Urban dictionary, it not just for understanding what your 13 year old is talking about:

        Being Woke means being aware.. Knowing whats going on in the community (Relating to Racism and Social Injustice)

    • I was trying to figure that out myself. It’s a very clumsy statement.

      Turn that around with Graff (the “white guy”) saying those words about Samuels.

      /And yes, I am very aware as to how African-Americans have been described throughout US history…

  • PaulJ

    If it is about cultural sensitivity; maybe it is important that he is from Minnesota (b/c he might be more inclined to adhere to “our” values -whatever those may be.)

  • Gary F

    Judging a man on the content of his character and not the color of his skin.

    They haven’t had good luck with the last few people holding that position, so why not try something new? I hope the best for him so that the children will get a good education.

  • Dan

    I’m surprised he said it out loud. I generally like Samuels, and agree with him on most issues IIRC. Since the statement seems offensive on its face, perhaps he figured he had cover by virtue of voting for Graff, and maybe he was trying to gain cover from some community activists.

    My own reaction when I read the announcement was surprise, in that they picked the white guy (by way of Alaska, no less), and that they didn’t pick Cassellius. I thought she had it in the bag no matter identity of the competitor.

    Still worth examining when someone suggests (or seems to suggest) that race or sex might count as “strikes against” in some context.

    I wish Graff luck. It’s a big, tough, complex job, one where the best case is probably incremental improvements rather than large victories, a lot is outside your control, all in a tough political environment.

  • Gordon near Two Harbors

    Why should race matter when it comes to who should lead a school district–or for that matter—a business or government agency? If it really does, then there is no way this country will ever be racially integrated.

    What ever happened to the idea that someone should be judged by the content of their character and not by the color of their skin?

    • We integrate our schools. Sometimes we don’t integrate our school administrations.

      • Mike Worcester

        We definitely have not. And I’d be curious to see the gender breakdown is of school administrators in Minnesota (including principals, asst principals, asst superintendents, and supes). I’d be willing to say it skews definitely male.

    • crystals

      Everyone fill out the make-white-people-feel-good MLK quote box on their bingo card! Race matters when it comes to who leads a school district because RACE MATTERS in our world. It affects how people (adults and students) experience our schools, how decisions are made, how equity and maybe someday equality are understood and worked towards.

      MLK said this too, by the way:
      “First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action;” who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.”

      Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

      • Gordon near Two Harbors

        I say, let the most qualified applicant get the job, regardless of race. The fact that the majority (?) of students in the Minneapolis Public Schools are non-white should have no bearing on whether or not a qualified white applicant from should become the superintendent. Heck, the guy wouldn’t even be in the classroom.

        Why do we want to further enable the all-too-common situation where race trumps competence?

        • crystals

          Sure, but “the most qualified” is subjective in and of itself. Who determines that? What factors into it? What doesn’t?

          The way I approach hiring is this: set a clear bar for the level of competence/skill/etc. a person MUST have to be successful in the role. If you have multiple candidates who exceed that bar, then you absolutely can and should take a variety of different things into account to make the best, and most well-rounded, hiring decision possible.

          And race and competence are not mutually exclusive, so to presume one must trump the other is a flawed premise to begin with.

  • Lobd

    I hope he can reach out to all the minority kids, not just from a particular group.

  • lindblomeagles

    In all honesty, most of America’s minority communities historically hoped white guys could lead their school system (except Native communities, and that’s a whole ‘notha story). That’s why cases like Brown vs. Board were fought in the Supreme Court, so Bob’s question IS a good question to ask. As we all know, when that hope proved illusive at best (from the founding thru 2016), minority communities demanded somebody of their own persuasion lead their school districts over the last 20 years or so. Thus, while many people today find “same color” administrators discriminatory, the reality is the discrimination arises from the long line of failures white administrators had already exacted to communities of color and their resistance to engaging in anymore failure. Minneapolis seems to be responding to the urgent needs of its students, and therefore, they are going to give this administrator a shot. He will need to understand that an enormous responsibility is being placed on his shoulders. He just isn’t there to help students achieve. He’s there to build trust among all Minneapolitans. If he can’t do that; if he fails badly; his efforts could really harbor some lingering resentment.