First, let us congratulate the National Education Association on passing the new business item (NBI) on institutional racism at their annual Representative Assembly. To pass such a measure under the leadership of three women of color is commendable and historic — a union precedent.
We would like to thank the anti-racist activists both internally and externally who made such a moment happen. Yet, it should humble all of us to some degree that it took such a long time to do what seemed so obvious to NEA members of color currently under duress in their classrooms, and former NEA members forced out of their classrooms due to school closures and wayward curriculum mandates.
Dismantling racism should be an enduring part of the work NEA does both internally and externally, not just a year-long exploration of what such work might look like. $277,000 for this work seems like a lot, but we hope NEA’s 3 million members multiply the impact of those funds by dedicating their minds and hearts to intense personal reflection and anti-racist work, and to policy that ensures the NEA continues to fund anti-racism training and resources for its members and staff. After all, institutional racism does not reside in the walls of a school building. It lives in the beliefs, actions, and policies of people who, despite their best intentions, have been socialized in a deeply unjust society. Transformational anti-racist work shouldn’t be temporary or optional for anyone.
Racism does not just manifest in our attitudes and actions, but in the policies of the districts we serve. Segregation and inequitable funding remains as common as it ever was. Experts predict that only 5 percent of teachers will be people of color by the year 2020 thanks in large part to the pedagogical and structural flaws within our most under-resourced schools, where teachers of color generally work. We must engage school communities in these initiatives as well, especially with parents and students of color who are often stripped of agency in schools. Union activism is not the only solution, but unions must actively address these policy issues continuously, and in perpetuity.
We must all do better. Speaking out against racism does not begin and end with opining on school closures and overtesting, but also addressing our collective complicity in the injustices that have claimed and continue to threaten the Trayvon Martins, Jordan Davises, Mike Browns, Jessica Hernandezes, and Rekia Boyds who sit in our classrooms, hampered by the biases of the adults in front of them. In the last year, activists within and outside of the NEA have transformed the educational dialogue enough to allow for this new business item to pass. Organizations went from treating Ferguson as acid to an education leader’s tongue to freely speaking the word ‘racism.’ Now, we must go beyond statements and into the substance of our actions. Making these items compulsory for the work our unions (and our respective school districts) do ought to sit side-by-side with collective bargaining rights.
During the “no” vote in the representative assembly, some said one could hear a pin drop in the auditorium. Here’s hoping it was because everyone in the room actually believed in embracing an anti-racism ethos and not merely because they didn’t want to be perceived as racist. Let’s move forward in that spirit and work in good faith towards the goal of true equality.