“If they have parents”

Let’s talk about this quote:

“We are striving to make the right decision in a loaded situation, and I’m not hearing from the parents (if they have parents) of the poor black, white and brown kids in the West End and elsewhere who are leaving the third grade unable to read. Their fate is sealed, and they seem to have no one in the system expressing any concern for them.”

-Ben Cundiff, Kentucky Board of Education Member in an email response to a supporter of a state takeover of JCPS

For some context on this quote,  you can read this article from the Courier-Journal:

Now there are several parts of this quote that we could talk about like:

  • Exactly why it’s a loaded situation – maybe because a highly respected and competent Commissioner of Education who was not going to recommend a takeover of JCPS was forced out by Cundiff himself and his counterparts on the board, and his replacement came in and spent 2 days in the district and changed the recommendation. (Note: it was announced today that Dr. Pruitt, the previous commissioner, was just elected the next president of the Southern Regional Education Board, a board that works to improve education in 16 states – this is who Cundiff and company fired for no reason.)
  • Or why he’s not hearing from parents of poor children – maybe because they don’t have as easy access to the internet as those of us who are privileged do, or because they are busy working more than 1 minimum wage job to support their family, or any number of other reasons that don’t mean they don’t care about their children.
  • Or the statement that “their fate is sealed” which essentially reduces a child’s entire worth to whether or not they can read by the end of third grade.

While all of those things are valid points to discuss, I want to talk about those four words in parentheses: (if they have parents)

Really?! This is a blatant stereotype with both race and class undertones that should not go unchallenged – especially when it is espoused by one of the people guiding the education system in the state of Kentucky.

  • It perpetuates the myth of absent fathers in black families, in spite of several studies that show black fathers are more involved with their kids on a daily basis than fathers from other racial groups. A Center for Disease Control study showed that 70% of black fathers bathed diapered and dressed their kids every day, compared to 60% of white fathers and 45% of Latino fathers and 35% of black fathers who lived with their children said they read to them daily compared to 30% of white dads and 22% of Latino dads.[1]
  • It perpetuates various stereotypes about black mothers that have absolutely no basis in fact that author Denene Miller summarizes this way: “we didn’t have our children on purpose, that our children were made by mistake, that we don’t love them the way that other mothers love their children, or that we’re not interested in caring for them in the way that other mothers care for their children.”[2]Ben Cundiff, just how many black mothers do you know personally? Because the ones I know don’t fit these stereotypes. I am a former foster parent who has cared for children taken away from their black mothers and even those mothers whose children were removed for good reasons loved their children and wanted to care for them. But I know even more black mothers who are extremely attentive and intentional in their parenting. And some of them even live in the West End.
  • It reinforces the stereotype that poor people are inattentive and ineffectual parents who don’t care about their children’s education, when in fact Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post notes multiple studies that show “poor people, demonstrating impressive resilience, value education just as much as wealthy people (Compton-Lilly, 2003; Grenfell & James, 1998) despite the fact that they often experience schools as unwelcoming and inequitable.”[3]While there may be multiple barriers in their lives that prevent them from being present at school, studies show that is not a reliable indicator of their commitment or involvement in their children’s education.

Cundiff’s flippant suggestion that these poor kids from the West End probably do not have parents is exactly the kind of harmful bias that reinforces low expectations and feeds low self-esteem in students of color and students who live in poverty. And it is being openly expressed by someone who is seeking to exert control over our school district. Stereotypes and biases matter. As Valerie Strauss notes, “No amount of resources or pedagogical strategies will help us provide the best opportunity for low-income students to reach their full potentials as learners if we do not attend, first, to the stereotypes, biases, and assumptions we have about them and their families.”[4]  So perhaps Ben Cundiff needs to work on himself a little more before he tries to work on our district.


[1] Sargent, Antwaun. (2014). “6 Actual Facts Shatter the Biggest Stereotypes of Black Fathers.” https://mic.com/articles/90965/6-actual-facts-shatter-the-biggest-stereotypes-of-black-fathers#.HdOsvFwA9

[2] Miller, Denene. (2018). “Assumptions about Black Mothers.” https://www.kidsinthehouse.com/all-parents/family-life/racial-and-cultural-differences/assumptions-about-black-mothers

[3]Strauss, Valerie. (2013). “Five Stereotypes about Poor Families and Education.”  https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2013/10/28/five-stereotypes-about-poor-families-and-education/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.7d7e793e63c7

[4] Strauss, Valerie. (2013). “Five Stereotypes about Poor Families and Education.”  https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2013/10/28/five-stereotypes-about-poor-families-and-education/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.7d7e793e63c7

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