In a year chock-full of crazy stories the one that has been gnawing at my mind since it broke late last fall was a short-lived little item about race, greed and graft in a Louisiana charter school. In an odd way, I am actually glad that the egregious case of fraud and abuse at T.M. Landry College Prep slapped mainstream America across the face when it did. It stings like a bitch but we needed it. At this critical point in American politics, black folks and white folks alike needed this wake-up call on race to see how harmful it has been to fetishize the stubborn legacy of inequity that codified racism left behind. We all needed to learn how the modern theater has birthed a new breed of race traitors and race baiters who have found a new way to poison the well of social evolution. Humankind cannot do worse than the peculiar institution of American slavery and the vestiges that still burden us. But the collective efforts of people of good conscience to evolve beyond it simply have to be better than they have been. Because when we are intellectually lazy and overly emotional you get disasters like what we saw at Landry.
The highly disturbing revelation that this Louisiana preparatory school fabricated hard-luck, ghetto narratives for its students to help them gain admission to the most prestigious universities in the nation has enough outrage to go around for everybody. Regardless of what color you are or where you fall on the political spectrum there was plenty in this story to be pissed off about. The personal essays of the students from T.M. Landry Prep- all of whom were black- detailed stories that have become all too familiar. Their backgrounds were represented as being defined by abject poverty, neglect and depravity. As their stories were told, if these students’ parents hadn’t abandoned them altogether, they were raising them through the trauma of drug addiction, gang violence, hunger and emotional abuse. Apparently these narratives were as moving as they were credible to admissions officers throughout the Ivy League because many of their institutions admitted students from this deeply problematic prep school.
The tragedy is not confined to the fact that these jive-ass narratives worked- but why they worked and who they worked for. T.M. Landry Prep is owned and operated by a black couple, Tracey and Michael Landry, who effectively pimped the profiles of students who came to their school to get a real shot at attending an elite university. On the surface the deceptive personal essays penned by the Landrys would seem like a gambit aimed at advancing the students’ interests. But the true benefit was for the couple themselves. The students who got into the elite colleges struggled mightily if they didn’t wash-out immediately. Meanwhile, the world regarded and rewarded the Landrys as visionary educators and social engineers. They became local celebrities and were gaining national notoriety. But the nature of their hustle couldn’t possibly last and eventually they were exposed as pimps- sans the gators, gold chains and lime-green suits.
Neither Michael nor Tracey had any formal preparation or qualification to handle the awesome responsibility of educating children. So it is no professional mischaracterization to call them pimps based on what they actually did. Pimps take the young, vulnerable and impressionable, dress them up to make them especially appealing to buyers, then offer them up to buyers and pocket a profit when the transaction is done. Make no mistake about it: every viral video posted on You-Tube of one of their students opening an Ivy League acceptance letter was profit to the Landrys. Their cash and cache continued to grow. Based on the facts at hand, the pimping parallel is poignant and undeniable.
The Landry’s have offered boiler-plate denials of every allegation against them- except of course for charges that they physically “disciplined” the students in their care. (Because God forbid anyone should deny the enduring acceptance of hurting black children as “old fashioned discipline.” Not to mention their subconscious validation of pimp-ology.) They soaked up the admiration, adulation and currency that came with being regarded as the benevolent visionaries who built a bridge from the ghetto streets of Breaux Bridge to the hallowed halls of New England’s educational elite. That the bridge was built on deceit and exploitation was an incidental inconvenience to this ambitious couple.
But they couldn’t have done this alone. What about the buyers? It was the buyers, after all, who were such big suckers that this elaborate fraud was irresistible. This is what law professors call “an attractive nuisance.” The financial gain and the social status for the Landrys would not have been nearly as sweet without the marks who bought in to these racial stereotypes so deep that they had to keep buying even when things didn’t seem quite right. These elite colleges were the suckers- the eager buyers with deep pockets that perpetuated the fraud. These well-intentioned but misguided folks meant no harm but they did MUCH harm. They were standing at the gateway to the kingdom and were on the look-out to do something positive with the power they possessed. Instead, they have stained the records and strained the chances of promising young students everywhere whose scholastic talents far outpace their financial resources. That is a tragedy that will have a ripple effect that will spread far and wide. Do not doubt for a second that hardcore racists and elitists will exploit this tragedy to undermine legitimate efforts at diversity and inclusion on campuses all over the country.
This happened because the admissions officers who reviewed and approved the applications fell victim to the same social conditioning as everybody else in America. But people in positions this influential simply should know better. They HAVE to know better. And the desire to apply affirmative action programs in a manner that conflates the value of racial diversity with the value of economic diversity is a lazy and costly short-cut. College admissions is NOT the place to be shopping for 2-for-1 deals. To be fair, there is a logic to the error they committed: Images projected in mass media of life in black urban areas are uniformly negative and oftentimes even forbidding. It has been that way for as long as there has been mass media. The cottage industry of exploiting those images for unearned currency- both social and economic- has grown in the post-Civil Rights Movement era. Unfortunately for black folks, oftentimes the temptation to capitalize on it is greater than any sense of human decency or cultural pride. When that happens you get folks like the Landrys- blinded by greed and vanity- who learn to put on a new millennium minstrel show that would make Stepin Fetchit green with envy.
They put on a good show and these admissions advisors gave them a standing ovation. We all pay the price when that happens.
But how did the Landrys get so far in their scam in the first place? The state of Louisiana has a lot to answer for in their role in letting this happen. Besides proving that being a state that is both economically poor and politically conservative is the height of stupidity, Louisiana also proved that the effort to destroy public services remains top priority in Republican policy-making. How does a state allow any school to be run without a modicum of state oversight? That is egregious negligence born of political engineering. The effort to undermine public school teachers, administrators and teachers unions certainly played a role in the highly publicized meteoric rise of this little charter school. Somehow they were succeeding without ANY of the bureaucratic burdens of public education. It was the Evangelical Conservative’s wet dream. If this little school can do it- being run by these proud, hard-working, God-fearing local folks- then something has to be wrong with all of these worthless public servants, right? So conservatives LOVED the mythology of T.M. Landry Prep with the same love they reserved for any black faces that help them hide the hostilities that undermine their credibility. That’s you, Ben Carson, David Clarke, Herman Cain, Clarence Thomas, et al. So Louisiana’s conservative politics owns this debacle as well.
The line representing the emotional crescendo from John Singleton’s highly influential (and equally nauseating) break-out 1991 film Boyz N The ‘Hood came from Ice Cube’s character Dough Boy: “Either they don’t know, don’t show, or don’t care about what’s going on in the ‘hood.” Hearts broke all over America as this hardened thug opened his heart and cried out for the world to hear his plight. But the truth is that what “they” know about what’s going on in “the hood” comes from us. Some of them care and some of them don’t. What matters more than anything else is that WE decided to sell the worst images of who we are rather than to solve them. That’s on us.