Courtland Milloy on Michelle Rhee: Fair?

In a Monday column, Washington Post columnist Courtland Milloy leveled a number of tough allegations against D.C. Public schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee. Titled "Rhee needs to take a look in the mirror," the piece claims the following:

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Long story short

Did Rhee really snub black folks in favor of white folks?

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*Rhee won't take responsibility for her own failures;

*Rhee "reveled in her disrespect" for D.C. Council Chairman and presumptive mayor-elect Vince Gray;

*Rhee stonewalled the council and could not be trusted with numbers;

*Rhee "carried her disdain for openness and honesty into the national spotlight."

So far, so garden variety. Rhee has taken abuse for such things repeatedly during her three years-plus tenure in charge of the schools. And when confronted with such talk, she responds with talking points about the difficulty of change and the vested-ness of the schools administration in the ancient regime.

A provocative columnist like Milloy wasn't going to just rehash old critiques. No, there's a reason this particular piece of work fetched in excess of 350 comments. He went far beyond where other detractors had gone, stating the following:

What Rhee didn't say is that she has gone all out to make residents who live in the wealthier, predominantly white parts of the city feel good. And if their feathers got ruffled and needed smoothing, she went so far as to visit their homes for coffee klatches and pep talks.

So what happens when black residents on the other side of town start waving their hands - don't forget about us; we'd like to feel good, too? Rhee holds them up for ridicule. School reform is not "warm and fuzzy," she says.

Read that again. Though stated in ambiguous language, the two paragraphs add up to a factual representation -- that Rhee met with white people and blew off black people. Of all the charges against Rhee that have surfaced in the Post of late, that's perhaps the heftiest.

When you say that a public official comforts white individuals and ridicules black individuals, you're saying that the official practices racial discrimination. For the reader, the takeaway is that the official is a racist. And even for a public official, it's a towering charge to throw out there, one that can cripple a career.  

It's also checkable. On Monday, TBD asked Rhee's office for data on the groups she's met with over her term as chancellor. Moments ago, Rhee's office replied with a document on her outreach. The nub of it is as follows:

Rhee has held 66 "community meetings" from August 2009 through August 2010. Thirty-one percent of those meetings — 20 — were held predominantly in wards 7 and 8. The three most highly attended of the community meetings, according to Rhee's office, occurred in Ward 7 or Ward 8. She pulled off 16 meetings in wards 4 and 5, which both have large African-American populations; and she held the least amount of meetings in fully gentrified Ward 2.

The data include everything from officials meetings to "living room" confabs. It's unclear how completely they reflect the informal get-togethers that Rhee has held -- just the sorts of discussions that Milloy is referencing in his column. TBD requested information on a broad range of meetings.

Formal or informal, it's clear that Milloy didn't do an exhaustive quantitative analysis before proclaiming that Rhee is constantly meeting with white people and then turning around and ridiculing black people. When asked how he'd reached his conclusions on the chancellor's coffee schedule, Milloy responded, "I looked on the [school system's] website and looked at where her meetings had been. . . . There were a lot of people who were dissatisfied," he says. "I have seen no evidence of people being satisfied with the efforts of her office" in explaining things to them. 

Asked whether he'd reached out to Rhee for her take on things, Milloy said, "No," adding that Rhee has national renown and a long record of public pronouncements. 

Perhaps it's just my stodgy journo convictions speaking here, but if you're going to claim that a prominent public official practices racial discrimination, isn't that an offense that deserves a phone call?   

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