Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Where Are the People of Color in the Movement?

....there aren't enough people of color in this picture... Jersey Jazzman raised this issue on his blog after a meeting of Jersey bloggers.

I left this comment:
JJ - you make a point that I've been hearing here in NYC in all the various white dominated activist groups. It always seems to come down to something we're doing wrong - we're not sensitive enough. People of color feel uncomfortable in a room full of white people. Our message needs to be targeted at people of color - and this is a divide even amongst the left - that tailoring the message will make a difference. That somehow people of color want a tailored message rather than addressing broader issues that affect all teachers. So where are they? Somehow that is not being explored. In NYC over 40% of the teachers are not white. They work side by side with the activists. Has anyone bothered to actually ask them? Do they bear any responsibility for their non-activism in ed circles? Are they active on other areas?
JJ raises a question that has often come up at MORE, and before that GEM, meetings. In fact that is an issue that has created somewhat of a divide in MORE, especially between the Race at the Top people and the people, mostly from ICE - who are older and out of the 60s and 70s civil rights and school race struggle (1968 strike) and who view things more in terms of class than race. In fact, it was Camille Eterno, who is from Jamaica, made what many of us thought was the most important political statement at a recent MORE meeting --- connecting class to race. It went over the heads of too many people who are locked in a narrow straight jacket of race-based ideology.

You know when I ask people what do the people of color they work with think or have they surveyed them I often get a blank stare. Oh, well.

One of the big issues on the agenda at that MORE meeting was the position MORE took on the Garner march where people were holding MORE's feet to the fire for not being more supportive of the march. Given that over 40% of NYC teachers are people of color, I have asked how in a march that drew only 3000 people, the fact that the overwhelming majority did not feel so impelled to make a statement to attend? If that march was a seminal moment why weren't there 300,000 people there like a climate march? How about 30,000? In essence, most UFTers of color did not feel it absolutely crucial to attend. But loads of white people I know did. Some call this white guilt. Or a moral imperative to make a statement. I'm not always clear but those not willing to make this statement are branded as racially insensitive, as was a portion of MORE.

I have been told in the past when I raise points about race that I should take racial sensitivity training and I understand. I get that -- my level of racial sensitivity has definitely been raised through contact with people like Sally Lee of Teachers Unite, who really gets it and I find myself lining up with her on race issues. Maybe I'm not there yet -- but...

You know, I did actually teach all kids of color for 30 years, had contact with their parents and was active in the community struggles in the 70s. So I'm not a total racial klutz (I was called a n_gg_r lover by a white cop and oh some of my white colleagues at school were often horrified at my views).

My answer to the question of "where are the people of color in the UFT" is "Unity Caucus." To Randi's credit she did the most to create diversity in Unity - and even at our moments of rancor I complimented her on that. Go to a convention or a DA and Unity is quite diverse. And it's funny how some of the anti-Unity folk who are most racially sensitive often respond with, "they do it for the perks." Pretty racially insensitive itself -- I feel many people of color are proud to be in Unity because it offered them an opportunity for leadership and influence. I believe Mulgrew's support for the march was in part influenced by his own constituency.

Hey, maybe Unity is the social justice caucus of the UFT if you measure by diversity -- and I bet a white group like MORE posturing on race leaves many of them rolling on the floor with laughter.

Which is interesting - both Unity/UFT and MORE have come under attack for being too social justicy. That would be like Israel and Iran/Hezbollah working together to go after ISIS. Not that I'm comparing the right wing critics in the UFT to ISIS.

More from Jersey Jazzman

The Hidden Voices of New Jersey's Teachers of Color
I know some of the people in this picture very well; others I met for the first time. So I won't claim to know how everyone here identifies themselves, but I do think it's fair to say that there aren't enough people of color in this picture.
Now, I want to be completely fair. There were, in fact, people of color at this event: Sean Spiller, Secretary-Treasurer of NJEA, was present for the entire thing (even if he let us do all the talking). Eskelsen Garcia herself identifies as a Hispanic. But let's be honest: this group needed some more diversity.
Part of "unpacking your privilege" is admitting you're a human being and sometimes you screw up, even if you think your intentions are good. So I appreciate people bringing this up; I will do better in the future.
JJ hits a key point in the racial sensitivity issue but the unpacking white privilege point becomes a major dividing point. The work of MORE's Sean Ahern, who is white, in organizing the Teacher Diversity Committee has been bringing in teachers of color.
JJ continues:
I don't always agree with NJEA on everything, but I have found them to be a good group of people who genuinely care about their members, no matter their race, gender, sexual orientation, or creed. But they still have some work to do (as do we all), and part of that work is making a more concerted effort to bring teachers of color to the table for events like this.
I'll confess: I would love to see some more New Jersey teachers of color take up blogging. Facebook and Twitter are great as tools for organizing and disseminating information, but I don't think they match blogging as a forum for fully exploring important issues. If we want to get the "voice" of teachers into the conversation, blogging is hard to beat.
And we desperately need that voice of teachers of color right now. As much as I've written about how teachers in Newark and Paterson and Camden are taking in on the chin, I don't live it. I can't give the full story because I'm not there. I can do my graphs and charts and whatever, but I can't tell you what it's like to be working in these classrooms. 
This is a place where I believe the NEA and other teachers unions can help: we have to start creating safe spaces for teachers to express themselves without fear of reprisal on their jobs

But no one is going to speak out if they don't think they will be heard. And you can't be heard if you're not present. So let's amplify the voices of teachers of color, whether they blog or not. And let's make sure their voices are heard first on issues of race and urban education.
Because right now, those are the voices we need to hear the most.
- See more at:
The final points JJ makes are what we are hearing from some people in MORE - using pretty much the same language. Creating safe spaces for people of color -- in essence that puts the onus on all of us. NYCORE focuses on this very aggressively. The problem people raise in MORE is that as a caucus supposedly engaging in a struggle for union power, making this your primary message, in a UFT with 60% white teachers, will only attract a small number of activists - mostly white while also leaving many people of color scratching their heads - some MOREistas say the people they work with are actually turned off by such a constant drum coming from a mostly white group.

And where are the black education based teacher groups which if they existed we could open dialogues and build alliances?

And do we ever  hold educators of color accountable for their absence while placing the blame on something white people are doing - or not doing?

Oh, my hair is beginning to hurt from all this thinking -- whatever I still have left.


  1. I am honored to be named as an influence on your increased racial sensitivity (probably because I'm a black person who is actually much paler than you). So much to say on this topic. But there's too much to say to even know what to say. And with that, I leave you and your readers with no more insight on the topic. You're welcome.

  2. Teachers in Newark are terrified by the prospect of losing their jobs and are not on the verge of blogging. It is easy to make recommendations from a perch of comfort and security. As Jazzman has pointed out repeatedly, teachers of color are disproportionately affected by One Newark.


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