Save My School, Privileged Messiah Billionaire!

by Shaker TC

I loved Melissa's "Skinny Jesus Chef" series (see here and here on Jaime Oliver's inane TV show and was reminded of them when I heard a This American Life segment on California gubernatorial candidate Steve Poizner and his semester teaching high school at an "inner city" school. (A pdf of the transcript is here.) It reeks of the same messianic dynamic where a clueless, privileged man who doesn't know anything about a community makes douchebag assumptions and gets everything completely wrong.

Poizner wrote a book about how SCAAARY the neighborhood and high school is:
Steve Poizner: [reading] I passed nearby my neighborhood French bakery and the local Ferrari dealership.

Ira Glass: This is Steve Poizner, reading from the book he wrote about this.

Steve Poizner: [reading] Several miles and a couple of highways later I took the Capital Expressway exit and drove into what felt like another planet. Signs advertising janitorial supply stores and taquerías. Exhaust hung over 10 lanes of inner city traffic; yellowing, weedy gardens fronted many of the homes, as did driveways marred by large oil spots or broken down cars.
Turns out that Privileged Messiah Billionaire has a skewed worldview that he can't admit is skewed.
Ira Glass: Driving around the neighborhood, it is hard to disagree with the teachers who say it's a perfectly nice middle class and working class area. Occasionally you'll see a house in bad shape, but overwhelmingly it's neatly tended yards, garages, decent cars and SUVs in the driveways. It's suburban. I was surprised to learn that when Poizner taught here in 2003 there was a golf course just a few blocks from the school - there's still a lake and the Raging Waters water park. He doesn't mention those in the book. We called a half dozen local real estate agents who confirmed what teachers told us - that the neighborhood looks the same today as it did back in 2003. If anything, they said, with the recession it's gotten a little worse – the average house price in 2003 near the school was $457,000. Today it's $317,000.
It's not just the neighborhood; it's the students as well. Poizner characterizes the students he teaches for a semester as sullen and unresponsive but This American Life astutely points out that the lack of responsiveness could be the result of Poizner being a bad speaker.
But here was the strange thing: the conclusion Poizner comes to - again and again during these scenes - isn't that he's doing anything wrong or has anything to learn as a teacher. Instead, he blames the kids. They're tough, they're unmotivated, they lack ambition, they're wired differently. The students, meanwhile, in every scene in the book (I read the whole book), seem utterly lovely. Polite, they don't interrupt, they don't talk back, they just seem a little bored. His very worst student is a graduating senior who's hoping to go into the Marines.
Like any good Privileged Messiah Billionaire, Poizner is completely adamantly that HIS perception and HIS reality is clearly everyone's reality, facts be damned.
Ira Glass: Are you overplaying the desperate poverty of this neighborhood?

Steve Poizner: No, I don't think so. I mean, it's definitely not like some inner city areas. And I don't know, what you described doesn't strike me as the neighborhood I was at. I mean, at least in 2002 and 2003, the neighborhood is rough-and-tumble. In that there's definitely a lot of crime, and no question lower income. And there's a lot of, you know, signs that people were struggling economically. That's why the crime statistics for surrounding the school – you know you can get those from the San Jose Police Department, like I did – and we definitely documented that not only did it appear to be a rough up and coming area, but the police will tell you that too.

Ira Glass: So we went to the police, and they informed us that no, the neighborhood around Mt. Pleasant high school is NOT especially dangerous or crime ridden. It's average for San Jose. And while San Jose might have a reputation in the richer suburbs around it for being sketchy, and definitely was more dangerous in the ‘70s and ‘80s, a police spokesman told us that view is out of date, an urban myth. According to FBI statistics, San Jose is one of the safest cities in the country. There were 371 violent crimes per 100,000 people in San Jose in 2003, the year Poizner was there. You'd be more likely to be a victim of violent crime in Austin, Texas, or Seattle or Phoenix or Columbus, Ohio or San Francisco. When it came to property crime that year, you were more than twice as likely to have something stolen from you in Honolulu, Denver, Seattle, San Francisco or nearly any big city you can name.
It's really fascinating how similar these narratives are in terms of how wrong both Jamie Oliver and Steve Poizner got it working with their respective communities. Neither can see beyond the blinders of their privilege to actually get a complete picture of the communities they are trying to "save."

The scary thing is that Jaime Oliver and Steve Poizner are on TV shows and writing books on how to "fix" things – obesity and education. Based on how wrong both of them get in terms of assessing their environments, they shouldn't be given the authority to fix a cuckoo clock.

And yet they're being touted as experts.

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