Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Labor and Race: Thoughts on Vegara a Month Removed

“Racism is profitable”.  This truth, credited to Malcolm X, offers an explanation for the longevity and strength of racism.  Racism is inextricably connected to economic exploitation.  Consequently, many activists and scholars have understood economic justice as being integral to racial justice.  That is, there can be no civil or human rights without labor rights and the appropriate protections of the same.  People of color have fought against racism in and the protections of unions to secure their rights in the workplace and since the 60’s, they have been served well by labor unions, especially those in the public sector.     
The tacit threat of the now month-old Vergara decision is the particular usage of race and otherness against teacher unions (and likely unions in general as education is the canary in the coal mine).  This usage of race, from the featured plaintiffs downward, is an “elegant” use of racism.  Unabashedly, I borrow this term from Ta-Nahesi Coates of The Atlantic.  In this posting from early May, Coates explains exactly what elegant racism is (though I suggest that you read the entirety of it):

Elegant racism is invisible, supple, and enduring. It disguises itself in the national vocabulary, avoids epithets and didacticism. Grace is the singular marker of elegant racism. One should never underestimate the touch needed to, say, injure the voting rights of black people without ever saying their names. Elegant racism lives at the border of white shame. Elegant racism was the poll tax. Elegant racism is voter-ID laws.

The graceful usage of racial (and class) empowerment discourses in Vergara, and now Davids v. New York, welcomes minority groups to work against their own interest, that is, labor interests, in the name of education reform.  Poor, minority students are best served by stable educational environments – environments that are more likely to be provided by teachers whose labor is protected as opposed to those being subjected to an unstable cadre of contract workers.  In their blindsiding of unions, Students Matter--by sponsoring the nine Vergara plaintiffs, seven of which identified as minorities--will most likely upset the ideal learning conditions for those they argue they are helping. (As an aside, not all of the students in Vergara are economically disadvantaged.  These students did not fit the categories that they case was built on.  As the defense noted, the facial claims, including these, had little merit – but that was not the standard upon which Vegara was judged.)  Notably, the first four plaintiffs in the Davids’ case are identified by race, with the rest being nominally identified.  The children who must be saved from the questionable threat of “grossly ineffective teachers” and teacher tenure serve as a part of a flawed argument.  What they represent historically and culturally is being used outside the very context of that history as questions of racism and economic inequality were eschewed by both the judge and parents alike.   Poor Black and Hispanic students are caught at the nexus of racism and classism, with the realities of each compounding the effect, penetrating all aspects of social life and their life chances.  
Taking a historical view of race and labor, it should not be lost that even after the mandate that would be realized as the EEOC became a part of the Civil Rights Bills that passed some 50 years ago, the tail end of the Civil Rights Movement saw Dr. King deeply concerned about poverty, civil rights, and labor rights.  The project of the Civil Rights Movement often meant working with unions, challenging unions to end their own racist practices, and charging them to take on racism in the labor market.  At the beginning of the next decade, the National Alliance for Black School Educators was started, in part to allow for greater cooperation by Black school administrators.  Indeed, some sense of racial and labor solidarity was important to its founder, as he traced the rise of the black principalship back to the Brown decision.  Such notions seemingly remain important to the NABSE today. A branch of this organization in Oakland provides a case worth noting in light of their stance following the Vergara trial.      

Vergara and the OABE
Since the decision at the Vergara trial, the OABE’s (Oakland Alliance of Black Educators, a branch of the National Alliance of Black School Educators) support of the Vergara decision had been fore-fronted by Students Matter on their website in their scrolling images, and is now is featured on the sidebar of many of their pages.  I do not think this statement or the associated image is an accidental usage of blackness.  Moreover, the nature of the language of the OABE, not only serves Students Matter, but serves to drive a wedge between minorities and labor.  The OABE writes:

Further, OABE categorically rejects the shallow and callously patronizing assertion that “this case is about firing African-American teachers.” The historical mistreatment of teachers (including African-Americans) may have created the context and emboldened the movement through which these laws were created; however, it does not excuse us from assessing the current impact the laws are having on our students, nor does the moral authority of past movements automatically transfer to every position taken by the generational and organizational descendants of those prior movements.

Not only does OABE endorse the plaintiffs’ position that these statutes be struck down because their impact violates the rights of children as articulated within California’s Constitution, but we encourage all interest groups to “stand down” from the constant state of impermeably vigilant and aggressive protectionism that stifles healthy communication and, rooted in fear, obscures common sense.

                   This statement elucidates the very real fears that Black parents, teachers, and community members have about schooling, yet, in doing so it supports an agenda that favors a particular brand of “reform” in education that has not corrected, but in many cases exacerbated, discrimination and segregation in schooling.  Groups like Students Matter, which has aligned itself with powerful neoliberal organizations like the Walton and Broad Foundations, Students First, and other organizations with intertwined missions, have taken a path toward free markets in education which take a view that histories, including a history of racism, are of little consequence.  The push toward markets, codified as choice, simply exacerbates segregation and reinvigorates white flight. 
This issue with history is exhibited in the statement as the OABE noted that past movements, and the moral authority derived from these movements, is not the automatic inheritance of the present members of the same group or organization. This statement is seemingly meant to impugn unions.  In considering this statement, I wondered if OABE itself has any current moral authority upon which to ask other interests groups to stand down?  Given the entanglement of organizations and political motives, can any one group be considered the arbiters of what constitutes common sense and healthy communication?  If so, where does such an authority originate?  That some part of their moral authority comes genealogically from the Civil Rights Movement should not be understated in considering answers.  The national or local organization may not have survived thus far or be taken seriously if it weren’t for some sort of bestowed authority of the era in which it was founded.  Knowing this, and the failure to acknowledge it, undercuts their claim to such a moral high ground.
One last thing with respect to the OABE: Despite being “comprised of current and retired teachers, administrators, parents, and school support-staff”, the organization does not take the time in the statement above to acknowledge the power that administrators have in dismissing pre-tenure teachers who have shown themselves to be ineffective or ineffective teachers who are tenured through Ed Code section 44939 and other statues.  That does not mean that they did not consider such issues in their many community talks and other events.  Though, if we are to believe that this is an endorsement from an even-handed organization, a consideration of the power and responsibility of school administrators should have been offered. 
This driving of a wedge between race and labor becomes more important as this strategy moves eastward, toward the other large labor unions in urban areas with high minority populations.  This strategy relies, in part, upon the appeal to civil rights that many have written on in corporate school reform, which is insulting, as it forwards ahistorical meritocratic falsehoods.  Yet, the past two Presidents have engaged such rhetoric when discussing education.
                  The anti-labor usage of race also denies the rich, but possibly ignored, lineage of thought that consciously interrelates race, class (with labor inclusive to that), and society.  These ideas take form in an activist, rhetorical, and literary history, which I cannot do justice now.  But given the hearkening of the Civil Rights Movement and civil rights, generally, in education reform, it should not be lost in this historical record that Dr. King supported teacher’s strikes for better working conditions, saw labor as a “missing ingredient in the civil right struggle as a whole”, and understood the mutual interest between minorities and labor unions. Though mutual action was sporadic at best, the radical possibility was not lost on King:

Labor and the civil rights movement, the unemployed, the aged, and elements of the church world can unite for a dynamic crusade for a two-dollar minimum wage covering all who work, not merely some. A public works program that will level ghettos, create fine housing for the millions now living in fifty- and-sixty-year-old tenements, build new schools, hospitals, recreation areas, will do more to abolish poverty than tax cuts that ultimately benefit the middle class and rich. (Speech to District 65 AFL-CIO)

This coupling of labor and minority groups still has such a powerful potential, especially so with regard to education outcomes and life chances.  Understanding labor rights as civil rights and vice-versa employs a history and a discourse that problematizes current reform movements and puts other possible profit motives at risk.  Though I doubt that the Vergara case was sponsored with a racist, hurtful intent, the reality it sustains and worsens, or the possibilities it imperils, should give us all pause.      
There are no magic bullets to fix social or educational shortcomings.  With regard to issues of race in the teacher workforce, there should be a space to discuss possible problems like stereotype threats (which may be an actual threat given teacher-student racial mismatches in places such as Los Angeles and New York), the failure to attract and retain minority – especially male – teachers, building wider notions of knowledge, the mixed bag of correlations between teacher unionism and student achievement, and what these issues of race and labor might mean for students based on the present body of research.  This post, however, is not meant to be that space and these are not the arguments that have been and will be put forward in Vergara and the cases that have and will follow.