How Dr. Steve Perry Sells Black Kids To The Highest Bidder

c.o Lance Murphey

As an educator who’s been doing this for 11 years, I’m always fascinated by the perfect stories we tell about kids. Either our kids are shining examples of the future or abject failures in need of reform. The word “failing” is of particular interest to me because, as I see my kids walk into class this morning, the first thing they don’t want to hear come out my mouth is “You’re a failure!” Even as sometimes-petulant teenagers, they prefer to hear “good morning” as they come into my class. Some come in with short haircuts with three cuts on the side, others in dreads, others still in fros. Their hair styles are extensions of their personality, perhaps, but if I decided to exclude them from my teaching, I’d be the failure that some of these pundits spew hate upon so confidently.

Which brings me to this weekend. On Saturday, June 11th, proselytizer Dr. Steve Perry celebrated a collaboration between him, comedian Steve Harvey, and the US Armed Forces. The cause? They would transform 200 young men of color into their version of righteousness:

In subsequent tweets, he comes within inches of calling himself the next Messiah, stopping kids from stuttering and pulling them from gangs, stepping in for their absent fathers, and keeping them up until midnight for no other reason than his own need to set these boys straight. In subsequent tweets, he shouts down tweeters who resent his anti-Black message, chiding him for implying that dreads and braids — hair styles with African traditions — make black boys look dirty and, worse yet, unsuccessful. He continues to use this weekend experience of setting boys straight (yes, like the jail, but only with a comedian and an army veteran) to make other wild assertions about the American school system and absentee fatherhood. He admittedly spends 29 tweets extolling the virtues of depriving boys their sleep and cutting their natural hair to detractors, then makes an about face to chastise “y’all” for spending time on Twitter instead of getting to work.

How do you lead an education revolution when your ideas are so revolting?

Much to my good fortune, most of the folks in my timeline trashed the idea, even writing a few expletives in his direction. His fans, however, eat up the vitriol, the way white Protestant gun-toting conservatives breathe Donald Trump’s noxious fumes. Also akin to his presidential nominee doppelgänger, his “pull no punches” approach thrives on fictitious punching bags, like evil teachers unions, saggy pants, and absentee fathers.

Him: “I took away your kids’ electronics!”
His people: “YEAH!”
Him: “Black mothers have no fathers!”
His people: “HOORAY!”
Him: “If they pick up their pants, they won’t get shot!”
His people: “GOALS!”

For years, educators who’ve paid even minimal attention to the charlatan have told anyone within ear shot that he’s up to no good, one of the horsemen for the larger hedge-fund manager agenda to dismantle and give away one of the most fragile but critical institutions in our country: public education. Ideally, public education is meant to reinforce citizenship and democracy, tenets that any country on this planet should aspire to. In the late 1970s to 1980s, we came the closest to closing achievement gaps, during the height of integration and getting closer to true equity for all schools. As with all social progress, a handful of people saw black people getting their comeuppance and said “We can’t have that!” In communities of color, we know that the ideal has fallen way short of its promise. Even though we’ve seen gains in both high school dropout rates and college enrollment, achievement gaps persist, and our country’s schools across the board are more segregated than ever, creating a resource gap along with a cultural and academic gap for our most disenfranchised.

Whenever there’s a narrative gap in any community, there’s a salesperson willing to make money off the most vulnerable. Insert Dr. Steve Perry.

Perry’s doey eyes, shape-up, and fiery rhetoric belie a canyon-sized dearth of ideas. He’s the guy who, once he gets caught selling out his community, will say “Well, someone’s gotta pay for it!” From his appearance on CNN’s Black in America 2 and his ill-fated TV One series Save My Son to his #RealEduTalk tour with former Washington DC school chancellor (and fellow edu-privatizer horseman) Michelle Rhee and his pedigree in schools, he’s yelled at the top of his lungs that he has the keys to the education revolution, and for a hefty price, you too can come along for the ride.

But if you ask him, he’s never failed. Everyone’s failed him. In Dr. Perry’s world, everything and everyone is a failure if it doesn’t conform to his worldview. What a lack of grit on his part.

This stuff from him is nothing new, but he still gets propped up by celebrities and networks, allowed to run around with titles like “The Most Trusted Educator in America,” as if someone actually took a survey on these things. A cursory search for images turns up book parties with Diddy, Soledad O’Brien, and Jacqui Reid. His alliance with these luminaries portends a sense of authenticity. Our country bestows authority too quickly on the wealthy and famous, even in spaces where they have little to no expertise. The ideas he continues to espouse continue to get airplay in certain circles, much to the joy of hedge fund managers, venture philanthropists, and conservative think tanks who highly encourage the nonsense.

Our trouble is that too many people are fooled by a tie, and a penchant for inflammatory statements. I give him two more years before he has to sell monorails.

This ethos is the reason why his horrific tweet exists. If vulnerable communities allow swindlers to peddle their petulance across our hoods, we’ll continue to see his rendition of respectability politics police the ways and means that black culture exists. There’s plenty of money to be made in telling everyone black kids, specifically boys, need to be controlled and managed. That’s why so many schools militarize their pedagogy so they can remove any part of a child’s personality that would get in the way of their learning, as if personality, and not systemic racism, is obstructing students of color from learning. But, because “it’s all about results,” they invert Malcolm X’s decree and instill conservative values onto our children by any means, even if that means bringing in the actual military.

So it’s not about hair. It’s about how America perceives our humanity.

A tape-up and a nice tie won’t keep the bullets away from our black bodies. Pulling our pants up and aligning our values to the military sounds ridiculous on its face as well. Changing our aliases to more Euro-centric names might lead to more jobs, but won’t help us keep our jobs longer than our white counterparts, much less give us that elusive promotion. Staying up past our bedtimes won’t make us more resilient; if anything, lack of sleep would add more stressors to a community already suffering from a myriad of diseases and preventable conditions. Speaking in the King’s English won’t pause the school-to-prison pipeline and the lack of wraparound supports our schools need to survive the trauma associated with their lives.

Nor will exposing our children to a man with a penchant for sexism. Let me say it again for the back seats.

Where he loses this argument, and so many others, is that we’ve seen many of the richest people in the world dress and act sloppily. Mark Zuckerberg, one of the richest and youngest billionaires in the world, looks like he’s never made friends with a tailor in his life. Billionaire and harbinger for education misguidance Bill Gates usually looks like he woke up like that, disheveled polo and all. In country clubs across the nation, white men who skip morning meetings to go “hit the links” rock 20-year-old white shoes, pee in the bushes, and spill Cognac on their caddies, swearing at them for giving them a 9-iron instead of their putters. In reality shows, white women uptalk about their yachts, fancy travel plans, and the maids who roll their eyes at the messes these dilettantes left for them.

In each of those instances, there is nothing powerful about their aura, just their institutional privilege. They’ll never be judged as less than, or be neglected the access to their generational resources. They’ll never be admonished for not adhering to the white supremacist standards Dr. Steve Perry expects of his now sleep- and hair-deprived black boys.

How do you lead an education revolution when your ideas are so revolting?

In a moment of intrigue on his timeline, he showed a bit of humanity by standing in solidarity with the LGBTQI community, prompting his audience to denounce homophobia in their ranks. To the casual observer, this position makes sense, and provides evidence to his supporters and detractors that he doesn’t just shill for faceless one-percenters. A deeper dive, however, shows the entrepreneur and CNN personality Anderson Cooper have a collegial relationship, if not outright friendship. Even in seemingly genuine moments, his actions have a veneer of slime that won’t allow the critical observer to trust him.

Like the aforementioned community, our black boys often have to perform a normative masculinity that doesn’t allow for them to experience a full range of emotions and personalities. Perry’s stunt this weekend (much like our general society) ingrains this in our boys, thus locking them into abhorrent versions of their own masculinity. In terms of race and class, very few people get the privilege of looking how they want to without repercussion. The onus isn’t on the most disenfranchised, but on white supremacy.

Ironically, the predominantly Latino clubgoers at Pulse were of all shapes and sizes. Pulse, for them, was a safe space that liberated them from the white heteronormative structures that didn’t allow them to live as they chose. The problem wasn’t that these clubgoers had a dance hall to call their own, but that our society still hasn’t fully accepted the LGBTQ+ community as their full human selves..

Steve Perry the onlooker would have said, “See how unsuccessful they are?”