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They Came, They Saw, They Fumbled — NEA Delegates and Institutional Racism

Written on 8 July 2015, 07:59pm under Homegrown

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The concepts contained in words like ‘freedom,’, ‘justice,’ ‘democracy’ are not common concepts; on the contrary, they are rare. People are not born knowing what these are. It takes enormous and, above all, individual effort to arrive at the respect for other people that these words imply.
–James Baldwin, “The Crusade of Indignation

Thomas Jefferson’s first draft of the Declaration of Independence denounced slavery as a “cruel war against human nature.” Mind you this rousing language was written by a man who owned slaves. Anyway, Jefferson’s paragraph on slavery never made it into the final Declaration of Independence because slave-owning delegates from the South and delegates with business ties to the slave trade from the North debated Jefferson’s passage and stripped this language.

Let’s just stipulate for the record that America’s Independence Day – celebrating “freedom” and “democracy” – is rife with hypocrisy and cowardly logic. Frederick Douglass peeped it and called it out in 1852. All of this history is an interesting sidebar to fully grasping what occurred last weekend as a room of about 7,000 educators in Florida tried to reconcile their principles with their practices.

The nation’s largest teachers union on July 3 unanimously approved a measure to combat institutional racism, “taking a historically bold stand against racism and hate.” Channeling the country’s Founding Father, Thomas Jefferson, it was a powerful moment of righteousness and justice. But like Baldwin noted, true justice requires “enormous…individual effort” and like the delegates to the Constitutional Convention, the NEA delegates on July 4, 2015 came up short.

First up was an item calling on NEA to “support…efforts to remove the Confederate flag and other symbols of the Confederacy from public schools and public spaces.” The ensuing debate reminded me of a game of Twister. Clutching and grabbing at any excuse not to ban the Confederate flag and racist symbols that glorify slavery and oppression – while looking desperately for a comfortable and steady position to land.

Some of those in attendance, and some watching online, had profound observations. Like Baldwin’s essay, so clear and uncomplicated.

After about a two hour debate “and other symbols of the Confederacy” was stricken from the item. A great public school for every student is the Association’s vision – though if you’re one of the thousands of Black students forced to attend a school honoring racist leaders, it might not be so great. Oh well.

Over the next couple days the assembled educators flirted between flashes of consciousness and backpedaling from / equivocating on actions that would show their institutional racism vote signaled a new way of thinking and doing. Based on the NEA’s elected representatives who gathered in Orlando, the jury is out on whether the union can “move to confront racism” and “demand changes to policies, programs, and practices that condone or ignore unequal treatment,” as cited on NEAToday.org.

What appears obvious is that NEA members have an opportunity to put some teeth to anti-racism work or leave it untouched on the plate. Over a year ago I challenged educators to step up and address racial injustice. It’s still your move.

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