Looking back at Black History to move toward a better future

At the AFT’s Black History Month telephone town hall Feb. 23, Black activists, educators and scholars joined AFT President Randi Weingarten in a discussion that chose to celebrate the history and triumphs of the Black community by leaning in on the actual work that still must be done.

black woman looks back at camera

First recognizing our responsibility as educators, school staff, healthcare professionals, public employees and even members of families and communities to learn the country’s shared history, Weingarten named the nation’s reckoning with racial justice as an opportunity to face uncomfortable truths about enslavement, institutionalized white supremacy and the pain that has been inflicted on Black communities. Echoing the Rev. William Barber and the Poor People’s Campaign, she suggested that after the cruelty and intolerance of the past presidential administration, this must be a “new era of reconstruction.”

This is a moment, said Schott Foundation for Public Education President John Jackson, to remind the Biden administration that the wealth of this nation was built on the annihilation of Native American people, enslavement that provided the United States with over a century of free labor, the 1848 cession of Mexican land and a New Deal that locked out Black people  from home ownership and other wealth-building mechanisms available to white Americans.

“It is time to press for a racial equity stimulus package,” said Jackson. “I don’t think that as a racial equity and racial justice community, we should work from a scarcity of resources frame when the resources are there. We should advocate that the federal government use those resources to address racial disparity.”

And, asked Weingarten, what should we do when we’re not “100 percent happy with everything that gets done?”

“Make them do what we pushed for them to do when we pushed for them to be elected,” answered Jackson. While elected officials have “very powerful positions … ultimately the power rests with the people,” he continued. “That’s something our ancestors have always known. When Lyndon B. Johnson had the position, Dr. King and others had the power, and it was because of them activating that power they were able to move the 1964 Civil Rights Act.”

Education is always key to the fight for equity, said Larry Carter, president of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers and a vice president of the AFT. As a young teacher, he turned down an opportunity to teach in England and instead went to work near a public housing development in New Orleans. “I honed my skills teaching young African American males who were getting suspended at alarming rates,” he said, telling them that a football or basketball career could be upended by injury, but “no one can take away education.” With a philosophy of “each one reach one,” he has worked for years to involve more Black men in education—as teachers and as engaged parents.

These sorts of efforts are crucial to moving away from racist constructs like the ones Dominique Day described as ubiquitous not only in the United States but around the world. “We are swimming in the evident legacy of enslaved Africans and colonialism,” said Day, who is the chair of the United Nations Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent and a member of the New York State United Teachers. She noted that many societal systems were initially set up “to justify atrocity” and wound up shaping our modern global economy. Although we’ve alleviated the grossest offenses, she said, “the ideas, mindsets and legacies of exploitations still persist.”

Now the world is watching, said Day: After the murder of George Floyd and the violence at the Capitol building, other countries are finding the United States’ grappling with a way forward “deeply relevant” to their own experiences.

Among those forging the way ahead is Rep. G. K. Butterfield (D-N.C.), who described the immense effort to pass an equitable recovery bill through Congress. “The Congressional Black Caucus is ready to join hands with you and fight the battles we have in front of us,” said Butterfield, a past chair of the CBC. “Don’t you believe for one minute that the war is over. We have people in this country who want to bring down public education.”

Weingarten cheered him on and said AFT members have been advocating for the American Rescue Plan and will continue to work toward its passage.

Aside from federal legislation, what else can we do to move the country forward? “The Biden administration can set a new tone and even provide some guidance,” suggested Jackson, who also noted that states can make a real difference: New Jersey recently passed the Amistad legislation requiring more robust coverage of history in schools. And, noted Day, state legislation just passed requiring that the 1921 Tulsa massacre on “Black Wall Street” be taught in Oklahoma schools.

Change comes from many quarters, noted Day, who credits the HBO series “Watchmen” for teaching viewers about Black resistance. “What does it look like to be strategic on all fronts?” she asked.

Unions can partner with parents, civic organizations and churches to improve curriculum. Conversations like the ones Carter helped set up between white Teach for America teachers and Black teaching veterans in New Orleans can vastly increase cultural understanding.

Weingarten agreed, noting the potential of the union to move the nation forward. “The union should not just be about fighting for wages and hours,” she said; it should also include community building and embrace an antiracist agenda.

[Virginia Myers]