Arlene Ackerman Profile: Queen Arlene

Philadelphia schools head Arlene Ackerman arrived a year and a half ago with a strong résumé on education but an unwillingness to play politics. So just how long do you think she’ll last in this town?

Arlene Ackerman came by her doctorate from Harvard and current $325,000 salary the hard way. She was born in a predominantly black St. Louis neighborhood in segregated 1947 America. As a toddler, she lived across the street from a whites-only high school. As a teenager, she was part of the first integrated class at a different high school. She suffered the indignities we might expect, from the white girl who falsely accused her of carrying a knife to the white boy who was assigned to escort her into an Honor Society banquet but refused. Her age and experience render her anachronistic in the post-civil-rights landscape of Barack Obama, Newark mayor Cory Booker and our own mayor. But as with other issues, it isn’t that she’s politically tone-deaf. She hears the current tune; she just refuses to sing it. For her, the civil rights era isn’t entirely over — or at least, the work isn’t finished. “Education is a modern-day civil rights issue,” she says. “It happens that the majority of young people we are failing in this school system are African-American, Hispanic young men. I talk about all of them … and if they were white, I’d feel the same way. But it’s like the first person who talks about race is a racist.”

This old-school approach to race bothers some, and her uglier critics accuse her of playing the race card — or even of racism. But the evidence runs in the other direction. Her cabinet hires have been appropriately diverse. Her second husband, the one she regrets losing, is white. Her two African-American sons, from her first marriage, are partnered to white women (one is married, the other not), and she can’t stop showing off pictures of her mixed-race grandchildren. Arlene Ackerman’s problem isn’t being racist. It’s being Arlene Ackerman — a woman who has already been tagged in the public square of the Inquirer opinion page as the “autocratic, imperious … Queen Arlene.”

The author of that column, Buzz Bissinger, had never met Ackerman. But after he zapped her with his pen, he was invited in to speak with the Queen for about an hour. “You usually write something like that and the person tries to tell you why you’re wrong,” says Bissinger. “She just didn’t care. She said, ‘I’m sure I’ve stepped on toes, but I simply don’t have the time not to; kids need help now.’ I came away thinking my column was right, but she’s smart, she’s confident, and she really does care.”