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The ghost of Willie Horton: Better Ed’s latest postcard

Show of hands: How many of you remember Willie Horton?

OK, so a few of you are too young. How about Trayvon Martin?

No matter your frame of reference, you’re likely to recognize the strategy at play in the most recent mailing sent out by Better Ed, the education policy wing of the local think tank Intellectual Takeout.

Front and center on the postcard is the business end of a handgun. The hand wrapped around its grip extends out from a shadowy figure in a black hoodie.

“Think about it,” says the headline. “High school dropouts commit 75 percent of crime. Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) graduates only 50 percent of their students.”

The last two lines — “It’s time to shift. Who’s the roadblock?” — are printed atop the faint outline of a group of picketers, presumably the teachers union. But the main image is so inflammatory the detail is lost.

In fact I had looked at it a dozen times before a friend pointed out that hand was white. I was stunned to realize he’s right. The gunman wears a ski mask, which makes him look dark-skinned, and very, very much like the avatar many people put on Facebook and Twitter when George Zimmerman was acquitted of killing Trayvon Martin.

If you make it that far, the message on the other side essentially is that MPS spends more than St. Paul Public Schools and creates mostly violence. The district’s “Shift” initiative — which has nothing to do with crime or budget-cutting — isn’t mentioned again, nor is its effort to persuade its teachers to agree to contract changes that would facilitate gap-closing strategies.   

Do Better Ed’s numbers add up? Depending on how creative one’s accounting is, maybe. But that’s not the point. Did Michael Dukakis free Willie Horton to kill again?

The message under the message

“I just looked at it and I was like, are you serious?” said Nekima Levy-Pounds, a professor at the University of St. Thomas Law School and the director of the Community Justice Project. “They know there’s a racial component whether they articulate it or not. They know that’s the message under the message.”

Back in March I wrote about Better Ed’s first postcard, which had a picture of a doe-eyed Latina child holding a cardboard sign, off-ramp-beggar-style, that said, “I need change, not just more $.”

The card directed readers to Better Ed’s website, where blog posts expand on the MPS-as-expensive-sinkhole argument. Again, debunk-able. And again, most likely just white noise accompanying the emotionally charged imagery.

Better Ed postcardBetter EdThe postcard recently sent by Better Ed.

The new postcard was followed by an e-mail bearing the hoodied thug photo as well as text claiming that the “ruffled feathers” that it caused had finally shaken the Twin Cities from complacency and focused attention on the magnitude of the crisis facing MPS schools.

“While we received good feedback, we also received a few e-mails and Facebook messages from people who were shocked and offended by it. Even Mayor [R.T.] Rybak took the time to message us publicly on Facebook, stating:

“‘I believe very strongly that we have an education crisis that needs immediate action. However I did not agree with the direction of the postcard I received from you.’

“Are we surprised that a postcard with an image of a gun would be shocking or disagreeable to some folks? Not at all.

“Are we surprised that some folks wouldn’t like a postcard pointing out that there are correlations between crime and poor educations? Of course not.

“But what is surprising, and sad, is that it took an image of a gun to get more people talking about Minneapolis Public Schools after more than a decade of neglect.”       

It took an inflammatory postcard to draw Rybak’s attention to the challenges facing Minneapolis’ schools? The same Rybak who will go to work Jan. 2, the day after he leaves office, for Generation Next, a regional initiative to focus policy efforts and funding on educational programs and strategies that work?

‘A huge leap’

Nor is the correlation between crime and graduation rates an accurate picture, Levy-Pounds added. The crime rate includes some traffic offenses and lots of nonviolent offenses such as writing bad checks.

“They have made a huge leap without providing any evidentiary support for the claims,” she said.

There’s one final bit of truthifying that needs to occur before this post comes to a close. The Better Ed communications include a chart that supposedly shows St. Paul doing more with less.

“We were even more pleased to find the Star Tribune joining us in the comparison! On Sunday, December 1, 2013, the paper published the following chart,” the follow-up e-mail continued.

“Now, there are some differences between the charts due to the time of publishing and some things being left off of either chart, but overall the fact that finally one of the major papers in town is pointing out the shocking difference, too, is fantastic.”

The accompanying link leads to the Star Tribune chart — and to a story that explains, in detail, why St. Paul’s higher graduation rate can’t be equated to dramatically better performance.

But again, the data probably isn’t the point. “They’re preying on people’s fears and stereotypes,” said Levy-Pounds. “It’s important for readers to ask critical questions and not fall into the trap of reinforcing stereotypes about communities of color, and in particular youth.”

Comments (9)

  1. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 12/09/2013 - 11:31 am.

    Follow the Money

    Somehow, I suspect if we were able to track down the sources of funding for “Better Ed” which is clearly trying to create a panic/crisis mentality in Minneapolis parents, we’d very likely discover a group of wealthy individuals who have ZERO interest in the well being of Minneapolis Public School Students, nor in their actual academic achievement.

    What they care about is making parents feel desperate enough to allow them to remake the schools into a very lucrative profit-making enterprise for themselves – an enterprise which would leave most at-risk kids far behind while blaming those kids and their parents, themselves, if their children failed to flourish under their new, one-size-fits-all, teachers are the equivalent of hall monitors educational regime.

    • Submitted by Alec Timmerman on 12/09/2013 - 08:28 pm.


      I would bet dollars to donuts that Better Ed is funded by the exact same folks that fund all they modern privatization movement. The privilege protection project of folks from the Walton’s to the the Koch’s who will do everything in their power to ensure that there is always someone else to blame for our societies ills. I am surprised they are allowed to print anything negative about these “paragons” of equality.

  2. Submitted by Peter Swanson on 12/09/2013 - 02:12 pm.

    White Hand = Racist, Black Hand = Racist

    “In fact I had looked at it a dozen times before a friend pointed out that hand was white.”

    Wait. If a reporter looks at a picture and assumes the perpetrator is black, despite the white hands, that is because she is discerning. But if a concerned citizen assumes the same thing, he/she is ignorant or racist. Why is one instance of jumping to a conclusion OK, while another is not?

    BTW, the Willie Horton commercial did not feature a hoodie (or a gun for that matter).

    When I see a black hoodie, I think of Robert Carradine from Revenge of the Nerds! That or Hogan’s Heroes on a night raid. Yes, Kinchloe was black. You got me there.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 12/09/2013 - 04:27 pm.


      The intent seems to have been to make “concerned citizens” assume that the perpetrator is black. The assumption may be racist, regardless of who makes it. Putting the assumption in people’s minds is race-baiting.

      If you don’t know the racial implications of a hoodie-wearing person aiming a gun in 2013, you are being willfully obtuse.

      • Submitted by Peter Swanson on 12/09/2013 - 11:10 pm.


        “Putting the assumption in people’s minds….” No. You jumped to that conclusion all by yourself. No assistance needed.

        He is wearing a gray ski mask, too. I am sure you will find some racism in that. If anything, a hoodie is a symbol of being a victim in 2013. Trayvon Martin was not aiming a gun, he was shot with a gun. This is a complete stretch by people determined to find racism and bad motives at every turn.

  3. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 12/09/2013 - 02:42 pm.

    “Shift” is the code word for “bust the Minneapolis teachers’ union.” The district says virtually nothing about it except platitudes while all the deformers are in love with it. Ipso facto it must be horrible.

  4. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 12/09/2013 - 03:16 pm.

    Who’s paying the bill?

    I noted that the hand was white, paid no attention to the face behind the gun muzzle, but noted the black hoodie. I’ve no idea where that puts me on the observational spectrum.

    Most crime is committed by people lacking an education? Homer Simpson would say “D’oh!!” Noting very revelatory there.

    MPS graduates half its students? Disastrous! Why are the other half not applying themselves?

    Who are the shadow figures behind “Who’s the Road Block?” Maybe it’s parents complaining about the too-large homework load of their children? Other parents wanting more emphasis on sports and less on academics (“The only reason my son even goes to school is to play ‘x.’”)? Teachers complaining about 40 kids in a secondary school class, or 30 first-graders in one room? Who knows?

    I’m inclined to go at least part way with Greg Kapphahn on this one: Follow the money. Who is “Better Ed?” Who’s paying to have those postcards printed? What constitutes “Better Ed?” Ms. Levy-Pounds is quite correct, I think This postcard isn’t about sharing information, it’s about preying on the unnamed fears and stereotypes that continue to plague the general public.

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