Race is a contrived construct created to divide, quantify, collate and qualify humanity. These categories have been utilized in the United States since its inception and laid the foundation for American capitalism and racism, which constantly intersect and connect throughout history to the present time. Racial privilege is directly correlated to economic and social standing (class systems). The systemic symptoms brought on by cyclical racism is apparent in the pipeline to prison, the destruction of public education, privatization, austerity, outsourcing of American jobs, and income disparity. Additionally, the ongoing militarization of the police force and the murder of unarmed citizens make it vital for all Americans to make a public stance regarding the reversal of racist feelings and unjust laws that support and nurture racism.
In September of 2015, the Caucus of Working Educators of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers formed the Racial Justice Organizing Committee in order to tackle and organize around the issues surrounding racial inequality. Conversations included but were not limited to the following: unfair disciplinary practices that suspend students of color at a higher rate, the slow recruitment of teachers of color, the steady reduction of teachers of color in the workforce, the development of curriculum and supporting materials that dispel myths, developing learning and sharing opportunities for parents about African American history and culture, and attempting to develop an organized response to local issues in Philadelphia.
How does grassroots organizing take a new stance in regard to the intersection of education and economic policies with racism and white privilege? This is the question that many caucuses across the country rooted in social justice unionism are grappling with. How can they attract and keep more members of color? How can they learn to recognize and eradicate racial bias? The rank and file members in urban and not so urban environments want to provide a response to this multifaceted and complex issue.
The Caucus of Working Educators responded with the creation of a Racial Justice Statement, which can be found here. There are position papers and an open letter to Teach for America that can also be accessed here. The statement and supporting documents recognize that schools that are predominately Black or Hispanic/Latino are being shuttered over unfair testing policies and the constant de-funding of schools in high poverty neighborhoods is no accident. It speaks to the support and willingness to always work alongside organizations like Black Lives Matter and Fight for 15 in order to level the economic resources and playing field across all communities to avoid this ever widening gap between the poor and the 1%, which always leave Black and Brown families in the hallows of the divide.
Today in the midst of an upcoming PFT election in February (ballots will be mailed February 4), I asked some of the members of the WE slate the following questions:
How will the work of the Racial Justice Organizing committee be continued?
Why and how is race important in the realm of public education, curriculum, and staffing?
How does social justice unionism intersect with race in Philadelphia?
Amy Roat who is running for President started the conversation with, “Race is a part of everyday life in the United States in general, but especially Philadelphia. We have a large population of African American residents along with the highest poverty rate. Poverty and race are inextricably linked to each other, but also to the education of students.”
Pamela Roy who is running for Treasurer continues, “We are not colorblind here in the United States, as much as we like to think we are. And one thing teachers really need to be aware of is that we are communicating our implicit biases to students constantly. Therefore, it is important for us to be open to self-examination and go through the process of unwrapping and working through ideas or prejudices that do not thoroughly uphold the ideal of equality for all.”
George Bezanis who is running for Legislative Representative states, “We clearly need to get more teachers of color into the classroom. That being said, I think the union needs to do a better job of tracking racial balance, but we definitely need to educate our members better because white people (the majority of the union) are awkward when it comes to talking about race and their “fragility” kicks in when systemic white privilege is brought into the conversation.” Please check out the NPR titled, To Be Young Gifted and Black it helps to have a Black teacher.
Peggy Savage who is running for Elementary Vice President states, “Social Justice Unionism demands accountability on the part of the educator, student, parent, and administrator. WE want to make sure specific conversations take place regarding race so that all groups have a value. WE want to recognize the contributions of Philadelphians and the importance that Philadelphia holds in the telling of our story as Americans. WE will create an environment of racial justice.”
Additionally, “Since the School District of Philadelphia has instituted 100% site selection for all schools, I have noticed many educators being left out; older women, women of color, experienced educators, and laid-off staff. The staffing system is broken and it continues to fail our children.” Peggy Savage.
Tasha Russell who is running for Associate Secretary states, “Race is important in the realm of education, curriculum, and staffing because it is important to break beyond the barriers of race and the limits that we put on students based on stereotypes. It is important to know that we live in a society where racism still exists. Many believe that we are in a post-racial society, but we have not fully created or embraced a curriculum that is representative of the students that attend urban schools.”
“Students who live in poverty do not have the same resources as higher-income schools.” Amy Roat
“In fact, Ismael Jimenez (running for High School VP) has the best word to describe this, “processed.” As a “processed” human being, you have unwrapped and stared at your own biases, and worked towards overcoming them. As educators, we are unwittingly putting these biases on our children, so we better take a hard look at ourselves before stepping into a classroom of children whether their demographics match ours or not.” Pamela Roy.
The percentage of teachers of color has dropped from 45% to 26% since the 1990s. The ethnic breakdown of the student population that attends Philadelphia Public schools is the following: 51% Black, 19% Hispanic/Latino, 13.7% White, and 8% Asian. Race data for teachers is no longer collected on a regular basis making the problem of hiring staff that reflects the student population a constantly ignored one. The privatization and austerity of schools is based on a post-colonial economic system that created banking laws and rules backed by human flesh (slavery). Despite best efforts to reverse these rulings after the Great Depression, the United States has returned to the unfair practices that resulted in the subsequent crashes of 1838, 1929, and 2008 because big banks do not care about the poor, the development of the middle class, or fairness.
The enforcement of laws is simply one step in the direction of change because the presence of laws is never enough to transform the hearts, minds, and practices of individuals. When I think of radical change, I envision the words of James Baldwin, “Most of us are about as eager to be changed as we were to be born, and go through our changes in a similar state of shock.”
This is an exciting and critical time to see how the work of the Caucus of Working Educators can hold each of us accountable in order to address head on the issues and complexities that surround race in American society. In order to create a sustainable and long lasting solution that can be used to make this world a better place for all children by starting with the improvement of the lives of students of color first.