Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Race on the Table – Globally and Locally

Excerpt of my column that appeared in The Wave (www.rockawave.com) on April 4, 2008.

Barack Obama’s speech on race has opened up a long-needed area of discussion, not only on the national level, but out here in Rockaway. Howard Schwach’s editorial on March 28 on the Democratic primary being about race and gender touched a chord. Sure, 50 percent of white voters voted for Clinton and an even higher percentage of black voters are for Obama. We should also say that in Italian areas and Jewish areas, candidates of those persuasions also garner votes based on how people identify with them. So, yes, all political campaigns are based to some extent on race, gender and ethnics.

[Wave Editor] Howard Schwach’s presentation of how Geraldine Ferraro was forced to resign for “telling a political truth” as a comparison of Obama’s relationship to his pastor a bit simplistic. I detected something petulant in Ferrara’s position along the lines of “look at all the advantages blacks have.” Obama did address white backlash over these issues in his speech. Sometimes I don’t get it. Obama is half white and half black and somehow the white half disappears when people talk about him.

PS 106 and Race
I bring race up in a column focused on schools because of PS 106 PA President Joyce Bunch’s It’s My Turn column in last week’s Wave in which she castigated PS 106 teacher Miriam Baum (unfairly, I believe) for her recent column on the schools in which she expressed the extent of teacher satisfaction with Principal Sills. Rather than get into the details of whether UFT President did or do not call Sills a bitch at a UFT meeting (she probably did – but she’s called me much worse and recently called a high school principal in Manhattan an A-hole.) Or the so-called “slanderous” comments about Sills forging a teacher’s signature on a faked observation – which I heard about literally the day it happened and have discovered has happened in more schools than we want to imagine, especially with Leadership Academy principals, which leads us to think about exactly what kids of training they are being given.) Joyce Bunch is basically defending Sills, and that’s her right.

Of more interest to me was points of anger she expressed at racial attitudes people may have towards kids and their parents in black communities. This touched a real nerve, given the debates going on about race and how that might affect the education process or the relationships between what is often white teachers and poor people in a black community. The idea has been raised by some that black kids would be better served by black teachers. But some people in the black community have also talked about the attitudes of middle class black teachers being much closer to those of white teachers when it comes to poor kids. Results in communities with a majority of black teachers like Washington DC (overwhelmingly,) Chicago and Bed-Stuy have not been any better.

Bunch points out that the community around PS 106 is not homogeneous, stating that she is an attorney and other parents are professionals. She says, “If someone receives a welfare check, so what?” As a white, Jewish young man who entered teaching in 1967 with a whole mess of preconceptions and received a wonderful education by the children and their parents, most of whom were on welfare, I agree wholeheartedly. And I continue to learn, working with current and former teachers of various races to try to reform the system in a way beyond the current corporate, market based driven schools based on a ridiculous competitive model that unfortunately people like Joyce Bunch and Principal Sills seem to have signed onto.

When I mentioned Bunch’s article to a young activist friend of the same mixed race as Obama, she said, “You cannot write about race and schools without reading Lisa Delpit’s “Other People’s Children” which I immediately bought and will follow up with in the future.
Bunch closes her article with an invitation for me to sit down with the PS 106 PTA to create a dialogue and I would be happy to do so. (My email is at the end of this article.) But I want to get one more thing clear…

Bees in my bonnet
I put 35 years in the system as a teacher/activist/reformer in a Hispanic/Black community in which I stood with local activists against an ethnic/white dominated school board, so I have some sensitivity to the issues Bunch raises. I’m proud to have been a teacher and the overwhelming majority of my colleagues were decent, well-meaning and competent. Thus column is aimed at teachers. When Bunch says I have a bee in my bonnet about Sills that is partially due to some of the things teachers (who I respect enormously) tell me. But it also goes to the one personal contact I had with her during the massive battle over the ratification of 2005 contract that took place between the UFT leadership and groups opposed to the contract.

With the UFT doing everything it could to keep the opposition out of the schools, we went around the city with leaflets to put in teacher mail boxes to provide them with both sides of the issue. I went to a hundred schools and in just about every one I was given the courtesy of being allowed to reach out to teachers. And when a principal felt uncomfortable, they were unfailing polite (for instance the principal of PS 114 asked to look over the leaflet and then said “OK.”) Some said they would check and asked me to come back. But not Sills, who was incredibly nasty and abusive over my request, refused to listen to even a 10 second explanation and ordered me off the premises immediately. (The person who was told to escort me out was horrified and said, “Don’t worry, that’s’ the way she treats people.”) When you have contact with so many people over so many years and you meet the rarity of someone treating me like Sills did, you get an inking that something is not right. But maybe she was just having a bad day. I look forward to the dialogue with Joyce Bunch and her colleagues if they are still interested.


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