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Teachers and Cops

Teachers unions must join the struggle against police violence and for racial equality.

Black Muslim protest against police brutality, 1963. Gordon Parks

When Rudy Giuliani blamed the deaths of unarmed black men on teachers unions last week, he relied on the same logic that Rod Paige, former secretary of education, employed a decade ago when he labeled the National Education Association a “terrorist organization.” These arguments may seem laughable to many on the Left, but they emerge from ideological assumptions openly articulated by neoliberal education reformers.

Giuliani argues the real problem communities of color face is not police militarization or brutality, but rather poverty and “black-on-black” crime, which requires a greater police presence, and results in the disproportionate arrests of blacks. The solution to poverty — and therefore crime? Education.

“Maybe all these left-wing politicians who want to blame police, maybe there’s some blame here that has to go to the teachers union, for refusing to have schools where teachers are paid for performance, for fighting charter schools, for fighting vouchers so that we can drastically and dramatically improve education,” says Giuliani.

Giuliani’s statement echoes the World Bank report “Great Teachers,” which explains that while the current “deceleration” in the Latin American and Caribbean economies is due to external factors, like slower growth in China, we can’t wait for capitalism to ameliorate poverty and its other terrible social consequences. Instead we have to turn to education so we can build “human capital.”

To do that, the reasoning goes, we must improve teacher quality, pay teachers for “performance,” and change who goes into teaching. The obstacle? Teachers unions. “The deepest challenge in raising teacher quality is not fiscal or technical, but political, because teachers’ unions in every country in Latin America are large and politically active stakeholders.” Teachers unions are therefore the enemy of economic progress, and governments must persuade parents and the rest of civil society to turn against them.

Giuliani was not the only pundit to link teachers unions and police brutality. One blogger even claimed that teachers unions cause as much brutality to minority youth as police. So let’s be clear about how police and teachers differ.

Police, the courts, and the prison system make up the “right hand of the state,” as French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu put it. Education, public health, and social service workers personify the “left hand of the state.” While it can act as an instrument of social control, the “left hand of the state” has emancipatory potential. In contrast, the “right hand of the state” is repressive, containing no potentially untapped liberatory elements. We can’t conflate the two, if we want to understand the state with any nuance.

Advocates of the education reform agenda being pushed by wealthy elites represent their project as the “new civil rights movement.” They have enlisted support from mainstream civil rights groups and perhaps most prominently Reverend Al Sharpton. In contrast we see an authentic civil rights movement mushrooming before our eyes. Young people have already been protesting deportations, school closings, and cuts to education funding, but now tens of thousands of youth, most of them black, are taking to the streets, often in acts of civil disobedience, to express their rage at the vicious slayings of unarmed black males.

We should assume that the powerful elites trying to dismantle public education and destroy teaching as a profession, globally, will use all of their resources to turn this authentic civil rights movement against unions. We see their strategy already in blog posts claiming, inaccurately, that unions and teachers are silent about racial justice.

Social justice teachers in local “Teacher Activist Groups” and organizations opposed to prison-like school conditions such as New York City’s Teachers Unite have joined with parents and students to push back against racism in schools. Teachers unions have haltingly followed their lead.

While I welcome American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten’s press release condemning the killing of Michael Brown and her arrest in a subsequent demonstration, there’s a legacy of mistrust between communities of color and teachers unions that is not going to be erased by the solitary acts of union officials or their public statements. And when officials do make such statements, they have to be clear about just what public education is up against.

For example, Weingarten responded to Giuliani’s comment by asking in a tweet, “Did #rudygiuliani really blame school teachers — not economics nor racism nor excessive force 4 #garner’s death. Has he lost it?” Yet in ascribing Giuliani’s argument to craziness, Weingarten lost the opportunity to educate teachers and the public about the ideological battle being waged against teachers, their unions, and public education.

Healing the breach between teachers unions and communities of color means first admitting there is one. That means teachers unions have to acknowledge the complicity of the education establishment in allowing segregated, unequal schooling.

It means finding ways to have constructive discussions with parents, students, and community activists who are angry and hurt about schools — and teachers — that seem not to value black kids.

Making unions more like a social movement is a tall order, but we have some great people to teach us how to do it: the youth who have organized for racial justice and an end to police brutality.