Why the Teachers’ Revolt Must Confront Racism Head On

Why the Teachers’ Revolt Must Confront Racism Head On

Race is not an add-on to “bread-and-butter” contract issues. It shapes the terrain of struggle.

Students at Meyzeek Middle School in Louisville, Kentucky protest the “gang bill” passed in mid-April (Tia Edison)

“I have already buried a student at fourteen.”

This was Tia Edison in her classroom at Meyzeek Middle School in Louisville, Kentucky.

Meyzeek is in Smokestown, one of the poorest neighbourhoods of Louisville and the fourteenth most dangerous neighbourhood in the United States. It is a predominantly black neighborhood, a demographic reflected in the school’s student body.

Edison is one of few teachers of color in Kentucky: while 23 percent of students in the state are of color, only 5 percent of teachers are. I had come to talk to her because some leaders in the recent teacher sickout movement were accusing black teachers and organizations like Black Lives Matter of dividing the movement. The teacher sickouts were to protest funding cuts and attacks on pensions. Now, some claimed that while the movement was “unified,” teachers of color were driving a wedge into it by raising a “contentious” issue—race.

And this is how I found out about HB 169, popularly called the “gang bill.” It had never been mentioned in the mainstream reporting on the sickout movement.

In its original form, HB 169 gave police the right to stop and frisk a group of three or more people suspected of being “gang members.” The bill claimed that a delay in the “implementation of this Act would severely hinder the safety of the citizens of Kentucky.” Sure enough, it was swiftly passed by both houses of the legislature and signed into law in mid-April, with only a slight modification, increasing the threshold for a “criminal gang” from three to five people.

The overt racial overtones of the bill were clear. American history provides many precedents. The Vagrancy Act of 1866 of Virginia was aimed at preventing former slaves from moving around the country in search of decent work. Virginian lawmakers too had warned that without the act Virginia would “be overrun with dissolute and abandoned characters.”

The “gang bill” will be implemented in a state that already disproportionately incarcerates African Americans—not to mention a state whose incarceration rate is growing faster than almost any other state in the country’s. (Kentucky already has the ninth-highest rate of incarceration in the country, according to Department of Justice statistics.) African Americans make up 21 percent of the prison population despite making up only 8 percent of the overall population. And it’s not hard to see why: black youth in Kentucky are more likely to be tried as adults than white juveniles, and black adults are more likely to be charged with serious crimes such as drug trafficking rather than possession.

But what does this have to do with schools, and why did teachers of color and their allies want the gang bill’s repeal included in the demands of the sickout movement?

Edison explained:

This school’s needs are completely different from other schools. . . . If you go to a predominantly white neighborhood and the schools there, the students there have resources at home, they have support at home, they are not going through trauma.

We cannot ignore the gang bill or separate this issue from [the general attack on] public education. Let’s say we get our pension fixed, there still will be kids getting hurt, or getting arrested, at a very young age: it is a school-to-prison pipeline. We’ve got to connect the issues and pull them together.

Edison’s colleague Erin Vachon reminded me that the poverty rate among black children in Jefferson County was more than double the rate of the country as a whole. Vachon, self-identifying as one of those “white ladies” who dominated the teaching profession, connected the gang bill to public education:

Safety is fundamental. . . . If the students are not feeling safe, learning is not occurring. If they are not properly fed, learning isn’t occurring. If they don’t feel loved and accepted, learning isn’t occurring.

Race had not emerged as a major issue in the successful West Virginia strike. The population of the state is 92 percent white. But what about in the other states where revolt is brewing?

Oklahoma, where teachers went on a nine-day strike in early April, has an 8 percent African American and 9 percent Native American population. Oklahoma is home to the Trail of Tears, a journey of forced eviction of Native people from their land. The 1921 Tulsa race riots, where white mobs burnt to the ground thirty-five blocks of the city where black communities lived and worked, is also part of the state’s history.

This history is important to recall because even today, Native American students face the lowest high-school graduation rates and highest dropout rates in the country, partly because school curricula do not acknowledge their history. In 2016 a high school teacher in Norman, Oklahoma had to apologize to his white students for drawing attention to white supremacy in class. Elementary schools in Oklahoma are still named after confederate generals.

Race is not an add-on to the struggle for wages. It shapes the terrain of struggle. In all these states of teachers’ revolt—Arizona, Oklahoma, and Kentucky—an increase in the concentration of students of color is associated with a decrease in dollars spent per pupil.

While Latino students make up the largest ethnic group in Arizona schools, schools with a high Latino population receive less funding compared to schools with lower Latino enrollment. (Like elsewhere in the country, school funding in Arizona is linked to property taxes, exacerbating disparities between rich and poor districts.) Students in states like Arizona fear every day whether they or their classmates will be deported.

Ariana Tuley is an African-American student at Marion C. Moore high school in Louisville. One of the teachers who inspired her most in her activism and education, she said, was Matthew Kaufmann, a white English teacher and a leader in the sickout movement. Ariana, unlike the “leaders” who thought bringing up race was divisive, believes that teachers are central to building an antiracist learning environment:

The people who create equity for students of color are teachers. They are the ones who are our advocates. And if you are tearing down these leaders (teachers) who are helping students of color find their voice, then you are increasing the racial divide.

Kauffman, who is also running as the “education candidate” in the upcoming state senate elections, echoed his student. “The classroom is one of the few possible integrated spaces,” he said. “When I see that threatened, I have to fight to defend it.”

The public-school classroom, no less than other institutions, is shaped by the violent history of American racism. If, and hopefully when, the teachers’ strikes spread to cities like Chicago, New York, and Baltimore, this new labor movement will face sharper issues of race than West Virginia did.

Many teachers are already making an effort to put racial justice front and center in their organizing. This February, for the second year in a row, members of the Philadelphia Caucus of Working Educators led a national Black Lives Matter week of action in schools, devoting class time and after-school events to issues of racial justice; they were joined by teachers in Chicago, Milwaukee, Seattle, Los Angeles, and some twenty other school districts, with about a half-dozen union locals officially endorsing the week of action. Both in the United States and abroad, unions in a variety of sectors are once again coming to grips with the social dimension of their members’ lives. New York Teamsters have led a fight against ICE raids; unions in Italy have shut down major cities in solidarity with the International Women’s Strike; and in Brazil, teachers, predominantly women, have struck work demanding both better pay and an end to gender violence.

There are, then, two choices facing this fledgling movement in the United States today.

The first is to dismiss issues like segregation and the school-to-prison as secondary to “bread-and-butter” contract issues and a threat to labor “unity” at a perilous time. This strategy bears uncomfortable echoes of early twentieth-century unionism, when union leaders like Samuel Gompers attacked black workers in order to defend the interests of the white or when the AFL, under his leadership, produced a leaflet titled “Some Reasons for Chinese Exclusion: Meat vs. Rice, American Manhood against Asiatic Coolieism, Which Shall Survive?” While the union leaders of the post-civil rights era have long abandoned this kind of rhetoric, today’s unions remain “hamstrung,” says longtime teachers’ union activist Lois Weiner, by their “refusal to acknowledge to communities of color their complicity in allowing the systemic racism in public education to go unchallenged for so many years.”

The second choice is to rebuild a labor movement where wage issues are not stripped of their race and gender overtones. Who can eat the “bread” from a “bread-and-butter” struggle if the police shoot you dead at fourteen?

We need a new labor movement, where teachers like Tia Edison and Matthew Kaufmann can fight for their classrooms without hiding their students’ lived experiences.

Where leaders of movements realize that bringing up race is not divisive—racism is.


Tithi Bhattacharya is a professor of History at Purdue University and a national organizer for the U.S. International Women’s Strike.


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