Let’s Hear It For Black Girls!

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“Sisters are more than the sum of their relative disadvantages: they are active agents who craft meaning out of their circumstances and do so in complicated and diverse ways.”

-Melissa Harris-Perry, Sister Citizen (2011)

 

 

Let’s hear it for black girls!

 

They are beautiful, bold, irrepressible and – above all – so incredibly strong.

 

Black girls will outlast any struggle, face down any adversary, and – more often than not – triumph in the face of adversity.

 

I know. I’m a public school teacher, and many of my best students are black and female.

 

That doesn’t necessarily mean they get the best grades. Some earn A’s and some don’t. But when it comes to pure willpower and the courage to stand up for themselves, no one beats a black girl.

 

Those are rare qualities nowadays. Sometimes it doesn’t make these girls easy to have in class. But think about how important they are.

 

As a teacher, it sure makes your life easier when students do whatever they’re told. But in life, we don’t want citizens who simply follow orders. We want people who think for themselves, people who question directives and do only what they think is right.

 

In short, we need people who act more like black girls.

 

As a white male, it’s taken me some time to come to an appreciation of black womanhood. But after about 15 years teaching in public schools serving mostly poor, minority students, appreciate them I do.

 

Think of the challenges they face and often overcome. Not only are they subject to the same racism as black males, they also have to function under the burden of male patriarchy and the quiet sexism that pervades American society.

 

According to a study entitled Unlocking Opportunity for African American Girls by the NAACP and the National Women’s Law Center, African-American girls suffer from higher rates of sexual violence and intimate partner violence than white women, high rates of sexual harassment in school, and they are more vulnerable to sex trafficking than any other group.

 

In addition, more than one-third of black female students did not graduate on time in 2010, compared to 19 percent of white female students. However, there has been progress. Despite a lingering graduation gap, black girls have actually increased their graduation rate by 63% in the past 50 years, according to the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation. Unfortunately, this hasn’t meant they’ve built up more wealth. In 2010, single black women’s median wealth was just $100 compared to single white women’s wealth, which was $41, 500.

 

And it only gets worse the closer we look at it. Black women are the only group whose unemployment rate remained stagnant at 10.6%, while the overall rate for workers in the United States dropped from 7.2% to 6.1% between August 2013 and August 2014, according to a National Women’s Law Center report on jobs data. More than a quarter of black women live in poverty, according to the Center for American Progress, despite making up a larger portion of the workforce than white and Latina women.

 

Despite such problems, black women start businesses at six times the national average, according to the Center for American Progress. And this is even more startling when you realize they are also more likely to be denied small business loans and federal contracts.

 

It’s one of the reasons black girls are so special. Those who somehow survive the incredible pressures society puts them under often become super achievers. They can do almost anything.

 

Perhaps it’s an internalization of the advice black women often get from their mothers. They’re frequently told they have to work harder and do more just to be noticed, and they often do. In my classes, I’ve had more black girls achieve grades over the 100% mark than any other group. And that’s not easy to do. But it’s typical black girl power – they try to be more than perfect.

 

However, it takes a toll.

 

They are more likely to die of breast cancer than any other racial group, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The reasons are complex, but include the fact that black women experience delays in diagnosis and treatment. Like many oppressed people, they often internalize that oppression – they don’t take care of themselves and the stress can be a killer.

 

And for those who can’t overcome the unfair pressures we place them under, the results are even worse. In school, I’ve seen precious and valuable girls thrown into a sometimes cruel and uncaring disciplinary system – a system from which it can be hard to extract yourself.

 

Some teachers and schools when faced with the independence and forthrightness of black girls don’t know how to handle them. In such cases, these girls are often disciplined out of all proportion to their population size in school districts. For example, in New York City, black girls made up only 28% of the student body during the 2011-2012 school year, but were 90% of all girls expelled that year from the city’s schools, according to the “Black Girls Matter” report by the African American Policy Forum. Similarly, black girls made up only 35% of the Boston public school population that same year, but accounted for 63% of all girls expelled.

 

In short, we’ve got a lot of work to do to dismantle a national system of racism and white privilege. But even beyond that, as a society we need to recognize and appreciate black girls. A little bit would go a long way.

 

We need to acknowledge the unique talents and skills of these amazing young women. And so much of it starts with a matter of conceptualization in the white adult mind.

 

Instead of seeing them as defiant, we need to recognize their independence. Instead of seeing them as challenging your authority, you need to see them as asserting themselves and standing up for their beliefs.

 

Those are all such positive qualities. How many times do adults complain that kids today don’t care enough about things – their apathy, their entitlement, their indifference. As a group, black girls are nothing like that! They are exactly the opposite! But instead of praising them for it, instead of valuing them, white adults often feel threatened and respond by trying to crush what they perceive as a rebellious and disruptive element in their classrooms or in society.

 

That’s why I love the Black Girl Magic movement.

 

It was created by CaShawn Thompson to celebrate the beauty, power and resilience of black women. It started as a simple social media hashtag – #BlackGirlMagic.

 

It embodies a theme I’ve already touched on – the irrepressible spirit of black women, how they are faced with an overwhelming mountain of challenges but somehow manage to overcome them and become tremendous overachievers! It’s a celebration of everything good and positive about the black female experience.

 

I think it’s just wonderful.

 

How can you not look at someone like Misty Copeland and not appreciate her success? She’s the first ever black principal at the American Ballet Theatre. She has shot to the top of one of the whitest, wealthiest and most elitist arts you can pursue.

 

Or how about Gabby Douglas? You can’t watch videos of the amazing Olympic gymnast, who at only 17, absolutely wowed the world with gold medals despite internet trolls hating on her hair.

 

And if we’re talking undue hate and criticism, no woman in recent memory has suffered as much as Michelle Obama. Whatever you think of her husband’s Presidency, you have to admit Michelle was a model of grace under pressure. How many times did haters pick apart her appearance while she just got on with the business of making school lunches healthier and being a tremendous role model for children of color and women of all races and creeds.

 

Or Ava DuVernay, the amazing director snubbed at the Oscars for her film “Selma.” What did she do? She made another amazing film “13th” about how the 13th Amendment ended slavery but opened the door to the prison industrial complex.

 

That’s Black Girl Magic. And it’s actually pretty common.

 

So come on, fellow white people. Let’s celebrate black girls.

 

Stop trying to touch their hair or compare them with Eurocentric standards of beauty. Stop, pause and actually see them. See them for who and what they are.

 

Black girls are amazing and make the world a better place.

 

Here’s to all the incredible and irreplaceable black girls in my classes and in my life!

 

You go, girls!

The Corporate Coup Destroying Our Schools Has Finally Come For Our Government

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First they came for people of color and I said nothing.

Because I am not a person of color.

 

Then they came for the poor and I said nothing.

For I am not poor.

 

Then they came for our public schools and I said nothing.

Because I do not send my children to public schools.

 

Now they’ve come for our government and who is left to speak for me?

 

This is a paraphrase of Martin Niemöller’s famous lines about the cowardice of German intellectuals during Hitler’s rise to power.

 

The fascists purged group after group while those who could have stood against them did nothing – until it was too late.

 

That’s very nearly the position we find ourselves in today in relation to the Trump administration.

 

The neoliberal and neofascist façade has fallen away. And the naked greed of our runaway capitalist system has been exposed for what it is.

 

Just this week, Trump unveiled a new government office with sweeping authority to overhaul federal bureaucracy on the business model.

 

Led by the president’s son-in-law and senior advisor, Jared Kushner, The White House Office of American Innovation will be an autonomous entity enforcing the president’s will. Described as an internal “SWAT team” of strategic consultants, and staffed with former business executives, the office will cut down democratic rule in favor of top-down authoritarianism.

 

And the excuse is the same one used to deny equity for minorities, the same one used to dismantle protections for the poor and the same one used to unfairly label and close our public schools – we need to run government like a business.

 

But government is not a business.

 

The goal of a business is profit for the few. The goal of government is service to the many.

 

In a private business only the owner or the board of directors reaps the benefits. But our government is not supposed to be set up that way. It’s not supposed to benefit merely all the president’s men. It’s supposed to benefit all of us – the citizens, the taxpayers, the voters.

 

This is exactly the model that has been used against our public schools.

 

We have shifted our concern away from students and parents to investors and corporations. For almost two decades, our education policies have increasingly been to reduce local control – especially at schools serving the poor and minorities – and give that control to private charter school operators. We have removed the duly-elected school boards and replaced them with appointed boards of directors. We have removed or diminished democratic rule and replaced it with an autocracy. And all the while the middle class has cheered.

 

It was a coup in plain site, and no one but parents, students, teachers and intellectuals spoke up.

 

Our voices were undercut or ignored. When we demanded equal treatment for our children, we were labeled welfare queens wanting something for nothing. When we demanded fair treatment, a safe work environment and resources for our students, we were labeled union thugs standing in the way of progress. At every turn we were tone policed into silence and passed over for the voices of self-proclaimed experts who knew nothing but what they were paid to espouse.

 

We were told that the only measure of academic success was a standardized test score. But no mention of the white, middle class standard our non-white, impoverished students were being held to.

 

When our schools were increasingly segregated by race, class and income, we were told that it was only fair. After all, it was based on choice – the choice of the invisible hand of the free market. When our schools were starved of resources, we were told to do more with less. And when our students struggled to survive malnutrition, increased violence and the indentured servitude of their parents to an economic system that barely allowed them to sustain themselves, we blamed them. And their teachers, because how dare anyone actually try to help these untouchables!

 

We allowed this – all of it – perpetrated by Democrats and Republicans, Conservatives and Liberals, because they’re all really just different dogs to the same masters.

 

We justified it all in the name of the market, in the name of economics, in the name of business. Why should we care? It rarely affected us directly.

 

White, middle class folks could get by. It wasn’t OUR schools being given away to private equity firms. It wasn’t OUR children being educated by temporary employees on the model of the peace corps with little training and no experience.

 

Those were just someone else’s children. We weren’t even sure they were human. They certainly didn’t share the same portion of humanity as we did. They were unwashed and unfed. Even if you washed them, many of them would still have brown skin. We were happy to have them as an underclass, as a cushion to stop us from falling further down the social ladder.

 

Our kids went to either well resourced public schools with fully elected school boards and shiny new facilities or else we sent our children to pristine private schools that offered the best of everything for a price.

 

But now the chickens have come home to roost.

 

Because this same model is being applied to our government.

 

Now it is us who will lose our voices. It will be our services that are stripped away as an unnecessary cost savings. We will lose our healthcare. We will lose our environment. It will be our democracy suspended to make way for the more efficient means of government – fascism and autocracy.

 

Who has time to listen to the people? Much easier to just decide what should be done. And we can justify it with our business model. No more voters and representatives. Now we will be businessmen and consumers. Nothing will stand in the way of the corporate class enriching themselves at public expense. They will be merely providing the rest of us with the goods and services of government, the bits that trickle down on our heads like rain or urine.

 

That is what Trump is attempting. He is turning the United States into a banana republic – even installing his relatives and children in top leadership positions. Our government now resembles the corridors of power in Baghdad under Saddam Hussein with henchmen Uday and Qusay in tow.

 

The question is this: will we allow it?

 

Will we continue to allow it?

 

Will we stand for it as the administration installs Trump loyalty officers in every federal office?

 

Will we say nothing as nepotism and greed become the most prized attributes of governance?

 

Will we remain silent as our public schools continue to be raided, sacked and burned?

 

Because the answer to those questions is the answer to so much more.

 

Are we on the cusp of revolution or is history merely repeating itself?

Randi and Lily, For the Good of Our Unions, Please Step Down. You Are a Distraction

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Dear Randi Weingarten and Lily Eskelsen Garcia:

Unions are facing hard times.

We are under attack by the new fascist wing of the Republican party.

So-called “right to work” laws are being drafted at the national level to strip us of our rights and transform us into the factory slaves of The Gilded Age. New court challenges at the state and federal level could make it next to impossible to collect dues without allowing countless free riders. And in the mass media criticism of teacher tenure is mounting despite widespread ignorance of what it even means.

More than ever we need to be united in our efforts to fight the forces of regression and tyranny. We need each other to protect our public schools and our students from those who would do them harm. But the biggest obstacle to doing that isn’t Donald Trump. Nor is it Mike Pence, Steve Bannon or even Betsy DeVos.

It is you. Both of you.

Frankly, as Presidents of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the National Education Association (NEA), you have become a distraction.

When DeVos was blocked by protesters from entering a Washington, D.C., school this week, Randi actually took her side. She tweeted:

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“Just heard a protester blocked & almost knocked Secy @BetsyDeVos down at Jefferson.We don’t condone such acts.We want her to go to pub schls.”

How dare you dictate to protesters what “we” want!?

This action may not have been something you, personally, condone. But DeVos just got away with purchasing her position as U.S. Secretary of Education. She and her billionaire family paid off mostly Republican lawmakers to the tune of $200 million allowing her to become the titular head of our nation’s public schools. This despite having never attended a public school, refusing to protect special education students, refusing to hold charter and voucher schools to the same standards, even refusing to keep guns out of our children’s classrooms! Well, Betsy, your money may buy you the title, but it buys you zero respect!

Randi, your statement just goes to show how tone deaf you and Lily are to the spirit of the rank and file.

We are not somewhat distressed at what is happening to our schools and our profession. We are enraged! We are taking to the streets! We are occupying our lawmakers offices and marching through community thoroughfares! And we aren’t throwing shade on other protesters behind the safety of Twitter.

For many of us, you both represent everything wrong with unionism. We are a people powered movement. We get our strength from the grassroots up, but you both try to rule from the top down.

Nowhere was this more apparent than in the early endorsements by both unions of Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.

Neither one of you made an honest effort to gauge member opinions on these endorsements before going ahead. You thought you knew better. You pushed through these endorsements despite a strong vein of support for Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders.

Sanders was much more in-line with our needs and values. And he had much more support among progressives and independents. He had a much better chance of winning! Meanwhile, Clinton was just another neoliberal in a long line of neoliberals like President Barack Obama who would offer us only the back of their hands.

You wanted a seat at the table, and you didn’t mind how much it would cost the rest of us.

Lily, when you took the reins of the NEA in 2014, you famously said “We are what Democracy looks like.” I was never more proud of my union than at that moment. But that pride has turned to ashes in my mouth.

Many of us will never forgive either of you for the results of this election. We blame you for Trump.

Had you not dictated to us that we must support Clinton, had you supported a candidate with a real chance of wining, there is little doubt that we could have defeated the clown currently in the Oval Office. Moreover, under a President Sanders we would have had a real chance at a progressive future that benefits everyone – $15 minimum wage, universal healthcare, sanctuary cities, justice reforms, fair trade, free college tuition.

Trump did not win alone. Unwittingly, you were his biggest supporters. It was your hubris – along with that of corporate Democrats deaf to the voices of their base – that gave us these next four years. And none of you have learned your lesson.

Lily, your three-year term is up this year. Randi, your two-year term is up in summer 2018.

We can wait you out if we must. But do what’s best for the people you claim to represent. Step down now.

Otherwise, you can look for opposition in our Representative Assemblies.

Let me be clear. I don’t think either of you have broken any by-laws. I don’t think there is evidence for impeachment (if our by-laws even allow it). But members could easily make a motion from the floor for a vote of no confidence.

Support may already be mounting for such positions at the Region level. It could go to the State House of Delegates as a New Business Item and get a majority vote from the floor. Or perhaps at our next Representative Assembly, someone will just make a motion.

I don’t know if it would pass. But I know that this division among us is holding us back from being the force we can be. I know that it has stopped many of us from talking about how we fight external forces, because we are instead focused on enemies from within.

We want to transform our unions. We no longer want to focus solely on collective bargaining. We want to focus on social justice and the needs of our students and communities. To be sure, our labor rights are essential to this fight, but they cannot be everything nor can we be willing to give up on the needs of our students if the powers that be will only leave our salaries and benefits intact.

We want a union that is more at home in the streets than in the boardroom. We want leaders who mobilize us to fight not tell us what to think. We need leaders that listen to us – not the other way around.

As a classroom teacher and education activist, I make this request in no official capacity for any of the various groups to which I belong. I ask as merely another member of the NEA. I have no affiliation with the AFT.

Moreover, I have nothing personal against either of you. We met briefly at the Network for Public Education conference in Chicago two years ago. You were both congenial and inspiring. It may not seem like it now, but I hold tremendous respect for both of you. I think in your own ways you have accomplished much that benefits our members.

But the time has come to step down. You believe in accountability. Hold yourselves accountable.

Put the strength of our unions first. Let it no longer be about you. Let it be about us.

Here’s hoping you’ll do the right thing.

Yours,

Steven Singer

NEA and PSEA member

P.S. – If any NEA or AFT member reads this open letter and agrees with the sentiments expressed here, please add your name and union affiliation in a comment on my blog.

What Diane Ravitch Means To Me

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Am I crazy?

That’s what many of us had been wondering before we read Diane Ravitch.

As teachers, parents and students, we noticed there was something terribly wrong with our national education policy. The Emperor has no clothes, but no one dared speak up.

Until Diane Ravitch.

We were told our public schools are failing – yet we could see they had never done better than they were doing now.

We were told we should individualize our lessons – but standardize our tests!? We were told teachers are the most important factor in a child’s education – so we need to fire more of them!? We were told the best way to save a struggling school – was to close it!? We were told every child has a right to a quality education – yet we should run our schools like businesses with winners and losers!?

It was absurd, and the first person to question it was Diane Ravitch.

In doing so, she saved many people’s sanity, she saved a generation of students and educators, gave parents clarity and direction, and she started a social movement fighting against the preposterous policies being handed down from clueless businessmen and bureaucrats.

This weekend the Network for Public Education will honor Dr. Ravitch at a dinner on Long Island for her tireless work fighting against this corporate school reform.

I wish I could be there in person to tell her what she means to me and others like me. Instead I offer this modest tribute to a person who changed my life and the lives of so many others.

I was a different person when I read “Life and Death of the American School System” back in 2010.

I had been in the classroom for about seven years, but I was just starting to feel like a real teacher.

I had just completed my National Boards Certification and felt like I wasn’t just surviving with my students anymore but could actually make intelligent decisions about how best to educate them.

And a big part of that was Dr. Ravitch’s book.

For a long time I had noticed that things weren’t as they should be in public schools.

I had put in a great deal of work to get my masters in teaching, to engage in hundreds of hours of professional development, not to mention three to four extra hours every day at the school passed dismissal time doing tutoring, leading extracurricular activities, grading and planning for the next day. I spent hundreds of dollars every month buying books, pencils, erasers, even snacks and meals for my students. Yet the school still treated me – it treated all of us – like greeters at WalMart.

We were highly educated, highly dedicated professionals but our opinions were rarely sought on policy matters. We were the experts in our fields and in our students who we saw everyday more than many of their own parents. Yet we were told where to be and when, what to teach and how long to teach it. We were told how to assess the success of our students and ourselves. And we were told how to best remediate and what else we should be doing that we never had time to do.

Was I really such a failure, I remember thinking. I work hard with my students everyday, see them make tremendous strides and still the standardized tests say it isn’t enough. What was I doing wrong?

Then I read Diane’s book and saw the whole thing from a different perspective.

It wasn’t me that was wrong. It was the system.

It wasn’t the students that were failing. It was the tests that didn’t assess fairly.

It wasn’t the schools that were deficient. It was the way they were resourced, valued and set up to fail by government and industry.

That book and its 2013 sequel, “Reign of Error,” really opened my eyes. They did for many people. Without them, I’m not sure I would still be a teacher today. I’m not sure I could have kept at it thinking that my best efforts could never be enough, that my exhaustion, my fire, my skills would never bridge the gap.

Diane Ravitch put it all in context of the social and historical struggle I had learned about, myself, in high school. I was engaged in the good fight for the civil rights of my students. Brown vs. Board wasn’t just a story in some textbook. I could see how the outmoded excuse of “separate but equal” was still being given today in my own increasingly segregated school and segregated workplace. Why was it that most of my academic students were poor and black? Why was it that the honors kids were mostly upper middle class and white? Why was it that my school situated in a poorer neighborhood was crumbling and the school a few blocks over in the richer neighborhood looked like the Taj Mahal by comparison? And why was it that teachers in my district got $10-20,000 less in their paychecks with the same experience than those in the wealthier community?

Dr. Ravitch made sense of all of that for me. And it made me very angry.

When colleagues came to me to discuss how they wished we had merit pay, I could turn to her books and see how it was a trap. When students came into my classroom after being kicked out of the local charter school, I had an explanation for why they were so academically behind their peers. And when contrarians complained about our union dues and wondered what they were getting in return for their money, I could give them an intelligent answer.

Diane Ravitch gave me the light that made sense of my whole professional world. I had been living and working in it for years, but I never really understood it before. And that gave me the courage to act.

When my state legislature cut almost $1 billion from K-12 education, armed with her books and blogs, I volunteered to lead educators in social actions against them. I sat down with legislators asking them to help. And when they refused, I knew we could protest outside their offices, make noise and the story would get to the media.

Ultimately it didn’t convince the legislature to heal all the cuts, but it helped minimize them, and when the next election cycle came around, we sent the governor packing.

I read Diane’s blog religiously and through her found so many other teachers, professors, parents, and students whose stories weren’t being told by the mainstream media. In fact, whenever so-called journalists deigned to talk about education at all, they rarely even included us in the conversation. So I started my own blog to give voice to what I was seeing.

Through Diane I found a community of likeminded people. I found other teachers on social media who were standing up for their students and communities. I found the Badass Teachers Association and joined and acted and was invited into leadership. We all loved Diane Ravitch and apparently she loved us, too. She became a member, herself, and encouraged us to keep fighting.

Then with Anthony Cody she started the Network for Public Education where even more educators from around the country joined forces. I went to the second annual conference in Chicago and got to meet her in person.

I’ll never forget it. There were hundreds of people gathered together, and she was just standing in the hall talking with a small group. I said to myself, “Oh my God! That’s Diane Ravitch! She’s right there! I could go up and talk to her!”

I looked around and everyone else standing with me had the same look like we’d all been thinking the same thing. Somehow I mustered the courage to walk up to her.

They say you should never meet your idols, but I’m infinitely thankful I didn’t listen to that advice. Diane was eminently approachable. Here I found that same voice I had read so many times, but also a generosity and a goodwill you couldn’t get from the page alone.

She knew who I was, had read my blog and asked me to send her more of my writing. I couldn’t believe it. I thought she was just being polite, but she gave me her email address. I sent her a few articles and she published them on her own site.

Since that day I’ve talked with Diane a few times and she’s always the same. Her intelligence is combined with a boundless empathy and insatiable curiosity about people and ideas. She really cares to know you, to hear your story and to help if she can.

When I had a heart attack about a month ago, she sent me an email telling me to take care of myself. She suggested I change my diet and exercise before confiding that she was having trouble doing this, herself.

Who does that? I’ve never experienced anything like it. I’ve read authors before and maybe written to them, maybe even had them write back. But I’ve never met someone like her who’s actually cared enough to relate to me as an equal, as someone who is important enough to be taken seriously.

In the media, talking heads will sometimes criticize her for changing her mind, because she did do an about face. She had once been Assistance Secretary of Education under President George H. W. Bush where she advocated for standardized testing and the corporate model in education. But when she saw what that really meant, she changed her mind.

To the media, that’s a defect, but to me, it’s a strength. It’s how we learn. We come up with a theory, we test it and if it doesn’t work, we come up with another one. Her philosophy of education is a response to the real world.

That’s what teachers do everyday. We try to reach our students one way and if that doesn’t work, we try something else.

Perhaps that’s really why so many educators have embraced her. She’s like us – a passionate, compassionate empiricist.

I can’t say enough good things about her. I can’t put into words how important Diane Ravitch is to my life. Her ideas changed me. Her ethics invigorated me. Her friendship humbles me.

I’d love to be there this weekend to say all this to her, but I really don’t need to make the trip. Diane Ravitch is always with me. She is in my heart every day.

I love you, Diane.

Former NFL Quarterback Supports Public Schools. That’s Right. PUBLIC Schools!

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So I’m in my classroom today, teaching, when I see something that stops me cold.

The door opens and in comes former Steelers backup quarterback Charlie Batch.

My mouth falls open. I don’t know what I was talking about. Vocabulary words or something.

The class of 8th graders falls silent, too. All eyes are on the two of us.

Batch looks me right in face with a big smile.

“Here you go,” he says and hands me a shopping bag full to bursting with school supplies and an extra-large tub of hand sanitizer.

By this time I’m probably blushing and grinning like my teeth are about to escape my face.

I hope I was able to mouth a “Thank you,” before he left, but I’m not really sure.

It all kind of happened in a daze.

He came. He gave me supplies. He left.

I guess I shouldn’t have been so taken by surprise.

Batch is a frequent face in my district. After all, he graduated from here, himself, before moving on to college and professional sports.

At the beginning of every year, Batch brings school supplies to every teacher in every building in the district. This was just the first time I was actually in the classroom when he dropped them off. Usually he sneaks in when I’m at lunch duty or in the computer lab. I find them in a neat pile on my desk with a note of thanks – to me!

It’s almost like he doesn’t want to draw attention to it. Almost like he doesn’t want to make us feel like we need to thank him.

It’s his quiet way of giving back to the community that made him.

In some ways it’s the most natural thing in the world. In others it’s truly amazing.

Lots of celebrities make charitable contributions to their communities. Many even put that money into their hometown. But how many invest in the public school system?

Most only seem to have eyes for charter schools. You know – those often cut rate, fly-by-night institutions that are privately managed and publicly funded. Schools that pop up in store fronts or in the mall with a celebrity name on the door and little else.

Rapper Pitbull has opened three of these dubious institutions. Pro-Football Hall-of-Famer Deion Sanders opened two – and closed them both last year. Tennis star Andre Agassi has founded a few and co-founded an organization that rents out properties to other charter schools at a profit. Former NBA players Jalen Rose and Kevin Johnson opened some, too, though Johnson is being investigated for misusing federal funds at his institutions. He likes the industry so much, he even married one of its chief advocates, former D.C. Schools chief Michelle Rhee.

But Charlie Batch? He hasn’t opened a single charter school.

There is no shiny building with his name on it. He hasn’t hired a corporate management team to increase his brand. He isn’t bragging in the newspaper about how he’s “Mr. Education” as Pitbull tried to rename himself.

No. He gives his money to the same public school from which he graduated. And then some!

He did start a charity called the Best of the Batch Foundation, which engages in several initiatives to help underprivileged children in the Pittsburgh region. The organization gives out free backpacks – or Batch Packs – to children in need. More than 7,500 have been distributed to date. About two thirds of my students have them. I can’t imagine what they’d do without them.

Batch also participates in Read Across America Day every March 2. The two-time Superbowl champ visits several western Pennsylvania schools to celebrate Dr. Seuss’ birthday while reading to children his favorite works by the author.

The project is sponsored by the National Education Association (NEA). That’s right. The largest teachers union in the nation. Batch isn’t throwing stones at teachers. He’s out there on the front lines helping us reach children.

In addition, every year Batch partners with the local Rotary Club to help promote literacy. He goes into the schools to read to third graders and give each one a free dictionary. Children also receive lessons how to use them and become word conscious. For some students, this is the only dictionary in their house, and it becomes a tool for all their brothers and sisters up through high school.

Batch also works with local business partners to provide 13 college scholarships to help defer the cost of higher education for needy children. Scholarships range from $1,000 to $8,000 per recipient.

Batch also knows the importance of pre-school. He works with local businesses to provide pre-kindergarten scholarships through the Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) and Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit (OSTC) programs.

And those bundles of school supplies that he hands out every year – each one contains more than $250 worth of pencils, paper, tissues, etc.

That’s not just a donation. It’s a pencil in the hand of a student who doesn’t have one. It’s notebook paper for a child whose parents are working three jobs just to make ends meet. It’s tissues and hand sanitizer so kids won’t get sick and miss class.

I can’t tell you how much it means to my students and me that Batch is there for us.

He knows what challenges we face because he’s there with us. He isn’t criticizing. He’s taking action.

If only more celebrities would value deeds more than words. If only more people would put themselves out there for our public schools.

If only more people were like Charlie Batch.


NOTE: Charlie Batch also donates school supplies to teachers at our local Propel Charter School. It’s a fact noted nowhere on the Batch Foundation Website. In fact, nowhere does he boast of all the schools he visits. In an age of philanthrocapitalists more concerned about controlling the fields where they donate, Batch is an anomaly. He is apolitical and pro-child.

Whiteness: The Lie Made True

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“The discovery of a personal whiteness among the world’s peoples is a very modern thing,—a nineteenth and twentieth century matter, indeed.” – W. E. B. Du Bois

 

 

What color is your skin?

 

You don’t have to look. You know. It’s a bedrock fact of your existence like your name, religion or nationality.

 

But go ahead and take a look. Hold out your hand and take a good, long stare.

 

What do you see?

 

White? Black? Brown?

 

More than likely, you don’t see any of those colors.

 

You see some gradation, a hue somewhere in the middle, but in the back of your mind you label it black, white, brown, etc.

 

When I look, I see light peach with splotches of pink. But I know that I’m white, White, WHITE.

 

So where did this idea come from? If my skin isn’t actually white – it’s not the same white I’d find in a tube of paint, or on a piece of paper – why am I labeled white?

 

The answer isn’t scientific, cultural or economic.

 

It’s legal.

 

Yes, here in America we have a legal definition of whiteness.

 

It developed over time, but the earliest mention in our laws comes from the Naturalization Act of 1790.

 

Only 14 years after our Declaration of Independence proclaimed all people were created equal, we passed this law to define who exactly has the right to call him-or-herself an American citizen. It restricted citizenship to persons who resided in the United States for two years, who could establish their good character in court, and who were white – whatever that meant.

 

In 1896 this idea gained even more strength in the infamous U.S. Supreme Court decision Plessy v Ferguson. The case is known for setting the legal precedent justifying segregation as “separate but equal.” However, the particulars of the case revolve around the definition of whiteness.

 

Homer Plessy was kicked off the white section of a train car, and he sued – not because he thought there was anything wrong with segregation, but because he claimed he was actually white. The U.S. Supreme Court was asked to define what that means.

 

Notably the court took this charge very seriously, admitting how important it is to be able to distinguish between white and non-white. Justices claimed whiteness as a kind of property – very valuable property – the denial of which could incur legal sanction.

 

In it’s decision, the court said, “if he be a white man, and be assigned to the color coach, he may have his action for damages from the company, for being deprived of his so-called property. If he be a colored man and be so assigned, he has been deprived of no property, since he is not lawfully entitled to the reputation of being a white man.”

 

Plessy wasn’t the only one to seek legal action over this. Native Americans were going to court claiming that they, too, were white and should be treated as such. Much has been written about the struggle of various ethnic groups – Irish, Slovak, Polish, etc. – to be accepted under this term. No matter how you define it, most groups wanted it to include them and theirs.

 

However, it wasn’t until 1921 when a strong definition of white was written in the “Emergency Quota and Immigration Acts.” It states:

 

“A White person has been held to include an Armenian born in Asiatic Turkey, a person of but one-sixteenth Indian blood, and a Syrian, but not to include Afghans, American Indians, Chinese, Filipinos, Hawaiians, Hindus, Japanese, Koreans, negroes; nor does white person include a person having one fourth of African blood, a person in whom Malay blood predominates, a person whose father was a German and whose mother was a Japanese, a person whose father was a white Canadian and whose mother was an Indian woman, or a person whose mother was a Chinese and whose father was the son of a Portuguese father and a Chinese mother.”

 

So there you have it – whiteness – legally defined and enforceable as a property value.

 

It’s not a character trait. It’s certainly not a product of the color wheel. It’s a legal definition, something we made up. THIS is the norm. THAT is not.

 

 

Admitting that leads to the temptation to disregard whiteness, to deny its hold on society. But doing so would be to ignore an important facet of the social order. As Brian Jones writes, the artificiality of whiteness doesn’t make it any less real:

 

“It’s very real. It’s real in the same way that Wednesday is real. But it’s also made up in the same way that Wednesday is made up.”

 

You couldn’t go around saying, “I don’t believe in Wednesdays.” You wouldn’t be able to function in society. You could try to change the name, you could try to change the way we conceptualize the week, but you couldn’t ignore the way it is now.

 

 

And whiteness is still a prominent feature of America’s social structure.

 

 

Think about it. A range of skin colors have become the dominant identifier here in America. We don’t like to talk about it, but the shade of your epidermis still means an awful lot.

 

 

It often determines the ease with which you can get a good job, a bank loan or buy a house in a prosperous neighborhood. It determines the ease with which you can go to a well-resourced school, a district democratically controlled by the community and your access to advanced placement classes. And it determines the degree of safety you have when being confronted by the police.

 

 

But to have whiteness as a signifier of the good, the privileged, we must imply an opposite. It’s not a term disassociated from others. Whiteness implies blackness.

 

 

It’s no accident. Just as the concept of whiteness was invented to give certain people an advantage, the concept of blackness was invented to subjugate others. However, this idea goes back a bit further. We had a delineated idea of blackness long before we legalized its opposite.

 

 

The concept of blackness began in the Virginia colonies in the 1600s. European settlers were looking to get rich quick through growing tobacco. But that’s a labor-intensive process and before mechanization it frankly cost too much in salaries for landowners to make enough of a profit to ensure great wealth. Moreover, settlers weren’t looking to grow a modest amount of tobacco for use only in the colonies. They wanted to produce enough to supply the global market. That required mass production and a disregard for humanity.

 

So tobacco planters decided to reduce labor costs through slavery. They tried enslaving the indigenous population, but Native Americans knew the land too well and would escape quicker than they could be replaced.

 

Planters also tried using indentured servants – people who defaulted on their debts and had to sell themselves into slavery for a limited time. However, this caused a lot of bad feeling in communities. When husbands, sons and relations were forced into servitude while their friends and neighbors remained free, bosses faced social and economic recriminations from the general population. Moreover, when an indentured servant’s time was up, if he could raise the capital, he now had all the knowledge and experience to start his own tobacco plantation and compete with his former boss.

 

No. planters needed a more permanent solution. That’s where the idea came from to kidnap Africans and bring them to Virginia as slaves. This was generational servitude, no time limits, no competition, low cost.

 

It’s important to note that it took time for this kind of slavery to take root in the colonies. Part of this is due to various ideas about the nature of Africans. People at the time didn’t all have our modern prejudices. Also it took time for the price of importing human beings from another continent to became less than that of buying indentured servants.

 

The turning point was Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676. Hundreds of slaves and indentured servants came together and deposed the governor of Virginia, burned down plantations and defended themselves against planter militias for months afterwards. The significance of this event was not lost on the landowners of the time. What we now call “white” people and “black” people had banded together against the landowners. If things like this were to become more frequent, the tobacco industry would be ruined, or at very least much less profitable for the planters.

 

After the rebellion was put down, the landed gentry had to find a way to stop such large groups of people from ever joining in common cause again. The answer was the racial caste system we experience today.

 

The exact meaning of “white” and “black” (or “colored”) was mostly implied, but each group’s social mobility was rigidly defined for the first time. Laws were put in place to categorize people and provide benefits for some and deprivations for others. So white people were then allowed to own property, own guns, participate in juries, serve on militias, and do all kinds of things that were to be forever off-limits to black people. It’s important to understand that black people were not systematically barred from these things before.

 

Just imagine how effective this arrangement was. It gave white people a permanent, unearned social position above black people. No matter how hard things could get for impoverished whites, they could never sink below this level. They would always enjoy these privileges and by extension enjoy the deprivation of blacks as proof of their own white superiority. Not only did it stop whites from joining together with blacks in common cause, it gave whites a reason to support the status quo. Sound familiar? It should.

 

However, for black people the arrangement was devastating.

 

As Brian Jones puts it:

 

“For the first time in human history, the color of one’s skin had a political significance. It never had a political significance before. Now there was a reason to assign a political significance to dark skin — it’s an ingenious way to brand someone as a slave. It’s a brand that they can never wash off, that they can never erase, that they can never run away from. There’s no way out. That’s the ingeniousness of using skin color as a mark of degradation, as a mark of slavery.”

 

All that based on pigmentation.

 

Our political and social institutions have made this difference in appearance paramount in the social structure, but what causes it? What is the essential difference between white people and black people and can it in any way justify these social distinctions, privileges and deprivations?

 

Science tells us why human skin comes in different shades. It’s based on the amount of melanin we possess, a pigment that not only gives color but blocks the body from absorbing harmful ultraviolet radiation from the sun. Everyone has some melanin. Fair skinned people can even temporarily increase the amount they have by additional solar exposure – tanning.

 

If the body absorbs too many UV rays, it can cause cancers or produce birth defects in the next generation. That’s why groups of people who historically lived closer to the equator possess more melanin than those further from it. This provided an evolutionary advantage.

 

However, the human body needs vitamin D, which often comes from sunlight. Having a greater degree of melanin can stop the body from absorbing the necessary Vitamin D and – if another source isn’t found -health problems like Sickle-cell anemia can occur.

 

That’s why people living further from the equator developed lighter skin over time. Humanity originated in Africa, but as peoples migrated north they didn’t need the extra melanin since they received less direct sunlight. Likewise, they benefited from less melanin and therefore easier absorption of Vitamin D from the sunlight they did receive.

 

Map_of_Indigenous_Skin_Colors

 

That’s the major difference between people of different colors.

 

Contrary to the persistent beliefs of many Americans, skin color doesn’t determine work ethic, intelligence, honesty, strength, or any other character trait.

In the 19th through the 20th Centuries, we created a whole field of science called eugenics to prove otherwise. We tried to show that each race had dominant traits and some races were better than others.

 

However, modern science has disproven every scrap of it. Eugenics is now considered a pseudoscience. Everywhere in public we loudly proclaim that judgments like these based on race are unacceptable. Yet the pattern of positive consequences for light skinned people and negative consequences for dark skinned people persists. And few of us want to identify, discuss or – God forbid – confront it.

 

And that’s where we are today.

 

We in America live in a society that still subscribes to the essentially nonsensical definitions of the past. Both white and black people have been kept in their place because of them.

 

In each socio-economic bracket people have common cause that goes beyond skin color. But the ruling class has used a racial caste system to stop us from joining together against them.

 

This is obvious to most black people because they deal with the negative consequences of it every day. White people, however, are constantly bombarded by tiny benefits without noticing they’re present at all. White people take it as their due – this is what all people deserve. And, yes, it IS what all people deserve, but it is not what all people are receiving!

 

We are faced with a difficult task. We must somehow both understand that our ideas about race are man-made while taking arms against them. We must accept that whiteness and blackness are bogus terms and yet they dramatically affect our lives. We must preserve all that makes us who we are while fighting for the common humanity of all.

 

And we can’t do that by simply ignoring skin color. That kind of colorblindness only helps perpetuate the status quo. Instead, we must pay attention to inequalities based on the racial divide and actively work to counteract them.

 

In short, there are no white people and black people. There are only racists and anti-racists.

 

Which will you be?

Teachers Told They’re Endorsing Hillary Clinton by NEA Leadership. Membership Opinions Unnecessary

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The decision has been made, teachers.

YOU WILL ENDORSE HILLARY CLINTON IN THE 2016 PRESIDENTIAL PRIMARIES.

Your union has spoken.

Now please donate to the Political Action Committee (PAC).

The National Education Association (NEA) represents 3 million educators. It is the largest labor union in the country. However only about 180 people made the decision to back Clinton.

The NEA Board of Directors voted today 118 to 39 in favor of the endorsement with 8 abstentions and 5 absences.

Thursday the 74 member PAC Council voted to endorse Clinton with 82% in favor, 18% against and some of the largest delegations – California and New Jersey – abstaining.

Check my math here. So 61 PAC votes plus 118 Directors plus one President Lily Eskelsen Garcia equals 180 in favor.

That’s about .00006% of the membership.

And we call that an endorsement.

But wait. It can’t really be that simple. All of these people are voted in by members. Surely they polled their constituencies to gauge how individuals wanted them to vote.

Nope.

To be fair, some NEA directors may have polled state union leaders.

Ronnie Ray James, NEA Director from South Carolina, wrote in to this blog saying he took a straw poll of the South Carolina Education Association (SCEA) board about an early endorsement. He said the vote was close but came out in favor of making the endorsement.

However, that’s a far cry from asking actual card carrying members of the rank and file! Moreover, it is unclear how widespread these straw polls were, if they polled board members about outright support for Clinton and if the leaders of state boards have the pulse of their constituents.

According to NEA by-laws, the organization need go no further to obtain input from individual members for a primary endorsement. Even these straw polls are a formality.

The 8,000 strong Representative Assembly (RA) did not get a say. This larger body representing state and local affiliates will get to vote on an endorsement in the general election when the field is narrowed down to only two major candidates.

But anything like a poll of individual members is apparently not desired by leadership – now or later.

Perhaps that’s because for weeks the rank and file have been vehemently criticizing leaderships’ mounting push to endorse Clinton.

Some opposed to the decision are certainly Bernie Sanders supporters. However, many others complain that it is too early to endorse before candidates have clearly outlined their positions on education or even had a chance to debate.

In an effort to solidify the vote among wavering leadership, Garcia called in the big gun – Hillary Clinton, herself.

The Democratic candidate met with Directors today before the vote. No other candidate was present.

It’s one thing to vote. It’s another thing to do it in the presence of one of the candidates!

This whole process has been a mockery of what labor is supposed to stand for.

Unions are supposed to be about solidarity. The word, itself, means joining together. But this move by NEA leadership has been nothing like that. It has been a top down decision imposed on membership.

It is ludicrous that leaders claim they are representing card carrying rank and file when they haven’t asked us what we think. Nor do they even seem to have the slightest interest in doing so.

Full disclosure: I am not a Clinton supporter. I lean towards Sanders. However, I could accept this decision if it had been conducted democratically – if it really was a reflection of the thoughts of my union brothers and sisters.

Instead, we’ve been treated like sheep. We’ve been herded, fenced in, hushed and placated.

The way I see it, there are only two ways to go from here: we can give up or we can fight back.

It is tempting to become despondent and stop participating in the union. Why bother with people who don’t care what I think? In fact, maybe all those fat cats fighting to destroy us are right. If the NEA won’t include me in something this important, why should I continue defending it? Why keep paying dues?

But I can’t go that route. I won’t. Together we bargain, alone we beg.

The problem is not unions. The problem is our leadership. We must fight to take it back.

We must replace those who would silence the rank and file. We must vote in new leaders who actually represent us and have an interest in our input.

We need leaders who will fight for us, not those who are satisfied with a mere seat at the table and an opportunity to enrich themselves at our expense.

This is hard. It’s much easier to just wave a white flag, go home and watch the football game.

A union is not made of leaders. It is made of members.

Lily is not the NEA. I am.

And I will fight to take it back.


NOTE: This article also was published in the LA Progressive and on the Badass Teachers Association blog.