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Racism: Our Generation’s Challenge, remarks to the 2019 UEA House of Delegates by NEA Executive Committee member George Sheridan

4/30/2019

If you can, please stand and remain standing for a moment. 

Please remain standing if your goal as an educator is to help every student succeed. 

Look around. This is a pretty remarkable thing. Tens of thousands of educators across Utah, more than 3 million of us across the country, go to work every day with the intent to make a difference. Give yourselves a round of applause – not just for the people in this room, but for the colleagues we represent.

Thank you. Please sit. But always remember you are part of something big.

“This generation of Americans,” said Franklin Roosevelt in 1936, “has a rendezvous with destiny.” That was the generation that stopped the Nazis, defeated fascism, and created the new deal. But every generation of Americans has faced challenges, because the story of our country is always the story of a people “yearning to breathe free,” as the plaque on the Statue of Liberty proclaims.

Abraham Lincoln put it this way: we are a nation “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” For generations of immigrants, the United States has been the land of opportunity. And since the mid 19th century, the foundation of both democracy and opportunity has been public education. 

In the National Education Association, our mission is advocating for education professionals and uniting our members and the nation to ensure that every student can succeed in a diverse and interdependent world.

When I was a child, I attended a whites-only school in the South. We were told that slavery was good for Africans and we had a school holiday for the birthday of Confederate President Jefferson Davis but not the birthday of Abraham Lincoln. Public schools were segregated under the doctrine of “separate but equal.” The truth is, they were rarely equal in such basic measures as facilities, textbooks, and per-pupil funding.

In 1954, the United States Supreme Court found that segregated schools were inherently unequal. The Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education did not end racism. It set off a two-decade struggle to desegregate public schools. That fight, in turn, linked up with a broad struggle for Voting Rights, fair housing, and equal employment opportunity. When Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, more than one person concluded that the struggle was over and racism was vanquished. But it wasn’t. 

Unfortunately, words and actions based on race hatred are still frequent in the United States – from marches by neo-Nazis and white supremacists to the burnings of black churches and the murder of worshippers. As educators, many of us have tried for years to counter bias through teaching students to respect others. But this well-intentioned work addresses only the tip of the iceberg. A much broader problem is unconscious bias – which leads employers to reject applications from qualified candidates whose names sound “Black” and leads police officers to shoot black preteens out of fear.

Underlying both these forms of interpersonal racism is systemic and institutional racism – when an entire system is set up in such a way that people of color are systematically disadvantaged. In 2015 NEA identified institutional racism in education as a major obstacle to the fulfillment of our mission. We pledged to eliminate it. 

Just two minutes ago we stood together, all of us dedicated to ensuring that every student can succeed. So I am not calling anyone in this room a racist. But I am saying that all of us – me and you – work in a racist system. That is, we work in a system that is set up to produce racist results.

Public education – the foundation of democracy and of opportunity – routinely disadvantages students of color. You can see the proof in unequal graduation rates, suspension and expulsion rates, and access to Honors and AP classes. You can often see it in the textbooks, curriculum and libraries available to students of color.

Despite our intentions, despite your best efforts, the system is not set up to enable every student to succeed.

If we want every student to succeed, we must have racial justice in education. 

If we want racial justice we must systematically examine the causes of inequality. 

In America, some public schools are the best schools in the world. You have some schools like that in Utah. They offer visual arts and music and theater, foreign languages and advanced placement courses and counselors. Their facilities for athletics and physical education are well-equipped and well-maintained. They have low staff turnover. They are the gateway to a bright future. Their students are mostly white and affluent.

Other schools lack most of what I just described. They offer test prep. Many of their students are people of color. Even in Utah, where 24.3% of students are identified as minorities, there may be some schools like that. What we have, across the United States, is a system set up to advantage some and to hold others in an oppressed inferior place.

A little over a hundred years ago, as the present system of public schools was being put in place, the prevailing belief among those with power was that science had established the superiority of white people and the inferiority of all others. There was no reason to devote equal resources to the education of people of color. In fact, it was a waste of money and effort, because they were biologically incapable of benefitting from a high quality education.

We know that isn’t true, yet we live and work in a system designed on the basis of that belief.

The Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board did not end that system. The system just became a little less visible. 

In 2018 the National Education Association recognized the existence of white supremacy culture, saying:

"The National Education Association believes that, in order to achieve racial and social justice, educators must acknowledge the existence of White supremacy culture as a primary root cause of institutional racism, structural racism, and White privilege. Additionally, the Association believes that the norms, standards, and organizational structures manifested in White supremacy culture perpetually exploit and oppress people of color and serve as detriments to racial justice. Further, the invisible racial benefits of White privilege, which are automatically conferred irrespective of wealth, gender, and other factors, severely limit opportunities for people of color and impede full achievement of racial and social justice."

Having named the problem, we recognized our responsibility to do something about it. That Resolution concludes:

The Association will actively advocate for social and educational strategies fostering the eradication of institutional racism and White privilege perpetuated by White supremacy culture.

To white people, white privilege doesn’t usually feel like privilege. It feels normal. It feels like being treated fairly. And that is a key part of the privilege – the expectation we will be treated with the respect we deserve. 

Most white Americans are uncomfortable talking about race. But it is impossible to face reality if you are unable to name it. If you don’t let yourself see color, you can’t see all the issues our students are facing. Many can be traced to unequal funding. Almost everywhere in the U.S., public school funding is based on property taxes. It’s so common we don’t often question it. But it inevitably means that students from wealthy white families are far more likely to have great public schools than students from black and brown families. Who said your zip code should determine your educational future? How can anyone square that idea with our ideals of democracy and opportunity?

Many of you have heard the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” But I want you to remember the first law of motion, as propounded by Isaaac Newton. “a body at rest will remain at rest unless an outside force acts on it, and a body in motion will remain in motion in a straight line unless acted upon by an outside force.” 

That moral arc of the universe isn’t bending unless we act on it. The system of institutional racism isn’t going away unless we act. This is the challenge facing this generation.

As Abraham Lincoln told the Congress in 1862 when he first proposed emancipation, “We cannot escape history. We of this Congress and this administration, will be remembered in spite of ourselves…The fiery trial through which we pass will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation.” 

The challenge facing us is different from that facing Americans in the 1860’s. It is not the same as the challenge of the 1930’s and 1940’s. But like those challenges, it calls for collective action. Only collective action can get the adequate and equitable funding necessary to ensure that public education is in fact the cornerstone of our democracy, where education professionals empower all students to be the leaders of a just society.

Last year you set yourself some important tasks, including

  • Promoting and growing educational equity programs in local Utah associations and schools.
  • Raising awareness of trauma-informed and restorative-justice teaching methods statewide.
  • Training leaders in Restorative Practices and providing needed support to each local and their members, and
  • Increasing leadership training for ethnic minority members

Those jobs cannot be finished in one year. Will completing all those jobs end white supremacy culture and dissolve institutional racism? No. We need to look within our school systems and even within our own association. When will we finally be done? Not one day, not one year – This is a life’s work. But this work takes us right back to the beginning. Why are we educators? I am a teacher to ensure that every student can succeed. And that is also why I am active in my union. 

Your slogan, #AllOfUsUEA recognizes that it takes all of us. And the slogan works in both directions. It is also UEA for all of us and for our students. And that’s how we bend the moral arc of the universe.

If you are up for this work, please stand once more.

Thank you.

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