Teaching Opinion

The Difficult Conversations on Race

By Leo Casey — December 11, 2014 6 min read
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Leo Casey replies again today to Deborah Meier

Dear Deb:

Race in America is an extraordinarily difficult and fraught subject for honest conversation. It involves deeply rooted injustice and pain. It invokes powerful negative emotions of anger, fear, and guilt. Schools have no special immunity from that reality.

Seen in this light, it is not hard to understand why many educators shy away from addressing issues of race in their classrooms and their schools. They are worried that they will say the wrong thing or be misunderstood. They are apprehensive that they could unleash strong feelings that they couldn’t productively engage. They wrestle with whether they are up to the challenges of discussing race in their specific context, which range from the racially segregated to the diverse, racially inclusive setting. They fear that they would be diving into deep and troubled waters without knowing how to swim and navigate them.

But if schools do not take on the vital task of starting this conversation, what institution in American society will? If not educators, then who? And if not now, in the wake of the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, and Eric Garner, then when?

You ask, “Can schools act as a force against racism?” As an empirical matter, the jury may still be out on that question, given the resilient power of racism and the challenges of creating and sustaining an anti-racist, democratic pedagogy and curriculum. But I think of this question in different terms, that of a moral imperative: How can schools in a society that aspires to be democratic not take on the injustices of racism?

The wrong thing for a teacher, Deb, is to do nothing, to ignore in one’s classroom and one’s school what is happening to black and brown lives around us. When it comes to racism and education, the sin of omission is greater than potential sins of commission.

Will educators and schools make mistakes when they set out to address questions of race for the first time? Of course, they will. What demanding subject did a teacher ever get ‘right’ the first time she or he taught it? And what subject is as difficult as race? Our human fallibility can’t be an excuse for not doing this hard work.

We are always at our best in teaching challenging subjects when we are working with and learning from other educators. Our collective wisdom multiplies our individual insights. But even educators that do not work in collaborative schools can draw upon the useful resources on recent events that have been developed by other teachers. #FergusonSyllabus is probably the most comprehensive collection of different resources; Marcia Chatelain, a Georgetown history professor who organized the project, describes it in her Dissent essay, “Teaching the #FergusonSyllabus.” At Rethinking Schools, Renee Watson’s piece on “Happening Yesterday, Happened Tomorrow: Teaching the ongoing murders of black men” provides useful suggestions on how to address these issues in the classroom, as does an article on “Talking to Students about Ferguson” on the Facing History and Ourselves blog. Share My Lesson, a free-share lesson plan website co-sponsored by the AFT, has materials on Ferguson and related issues such as racial profiling that have been developed by partners such as PBS, the Anti-Defamation League, Teaching Tolerance, and Facing History and Ourselves.

Many of the fears that teachers have about taking up these issues in their classrooms and in their schools are addressed in these resources. Among the important issues examined is the need to acknowledge student anger around these events as an entirely legitimate response to the killings and to the failures of the criminal justice system, while still helping students channel their emotions into protests and other constructive efforts that can build a movement for change. The guidance of thoughtful teachers who have built meaningful relationships with students is necessary if they are going to come to the understanding that, by itself, catharsis changes nothing. That understanding is fundamental, Deb, to building the movement of conscience you and I would like to see emerge from these protests.

I find your argument for empathy in these conversations to be particularly compelling, especially as applied to those with whom we have the most profound disagreements. It is useful, I would contend, to think of racism not as a description of a state of being in which individuals themselves are characterized as intrinsically racist or not, but as a description of actions and their effects. Applied to an individual, the term racist is a powerful moral condemnation with few analogues, and it will generally shut down all conversation and dialogue. There are exceptions, but as a general rule we do not know what is truly in the hearts of people with whom we disagree, even when their actions are unmistakably racist in their effect. So why not judge the action and seek to change it, rather than condemn the person?

Equally important, we have all been shaped by a culture and society in which racism is deeply embedded and engrained in everything from our notions of physical beauty and strength to our ideas of intellectual competence and social maturity. All of us—people of color, as well as whites—carry with us implicit, unconscious biases that are racist in their impact: It could not be otherwise, given the history of our nation. (For an overview of the science on implicit bias, see this report by Ohio State’s Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race & Ethnicity.) Focusing on the action allows all of us to do the hard, continuous work of overcoming those biases and changing the fabric of our culture and society. And it reminds us that it is work we must all do.

Beyond the classroom, educators and their unions need to exercise leadership in society on issues of race. It is important, Deb, that teachers’ unions have been prepared to step up in the wake of these deaths and the failures of the legal system to provide justice. Both Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers and Lily Eskelsen García of the National Education Association have issued statements condemning the failures of our criminal justice system in the killings of unarmed African-American boys and men. Randi was arrested in nonviolent civil disobedience in New York City after the grand jury decision in the Eric Garner case, as she joined a group of progressive rabbis in blocking traffic on the West Side Highway. This coming Saturday, Dec. 13, teacher unionists from along the East Coast and Midwest will be joining the families of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner in a national march in Washington for Justice for All. The event starts at 10:30 a.m. at Freedom Plaza at Pennsylvania Avenue and 14th Street NW and will end at Pennsylvania and 3rd Street NW.

This profile has earned teachers’ unions the enmity of those who would stand in the way of change of these issues. Most recently and remarkably, the former New York City mayor and unsuccessful Republican presidential candidate, Rudy Giuliani, announced that “teacher unions,” along with “left wing politicians,” and “black fathers” were the ones really to “blame” for Eric Garner’s death. Provided later opportunities to amend this statement, Giuliani doubled down on it. Teachers’ unions are certainly no stranger to assaults from the right, but there is an element of the politically surreal at work in Giuliani’s lines that has few matches. Such attacks are a badge of honor, a sign that in this struggle for justice, teachers and their unions are where we need to be.


Leo Casey is the executive director of the Albert Shanker Institute, a policy and research think tank affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers. For 27 years, he worked in the New York City public high schools, where he taught high school social studies. For six years, he served as the vice president for academic high schools for New York City’s teachers’ union, the United Federation of Teachers.

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