AFT ACTIVISTS spent the past year having blunt, tough, uncomfortable, courageous conversations about how to address the lingering effects of racism and inequity in our nation—especially related to black males. As a result, the AFT this fall became the first public sector union in modern history to issue an action-oriented report on achieving racial equity in America.
The report, “Reclaiming the Promise of Racial Equity: In Education, Economics and Our Criminal Justice System,” provides a framework for policy in national and state legislation, at the school board level and inside the AFT itself. As the AFT approaches its 100th year, this report serves as a capstone to a legacy of fighting for democracy and championing fairness and opportunity for all.
“I have been humbled and heartened by the overwhelming response from leaders and members around the country who participated in these courageous conversations,” says AFT Secretary-Treasurer Lorretta Johnson, who chaired the AFT’s Racial Equity Task Force. “I am proud that the AFT is the first union in the labor movement to address the crisis facing black males in a significant way. And for this work to continue, it will take the effort of all our members, including our white brothers and sisters, and the entire labor movement coming together.”
Members of the task force shared their experience in hammering out the report with the AFT executive council just before the council unanimously approved it—with a standing ovation. They described the emotion they felt as disheartening statistics about discrimination became deeply personal, and member after member described instances of indignity and discrimination—being followed in a store simply because they were black, or watching as worried white women crossed the street to avoid them.
Many white task force members had never imagined the reality of discrimination in quite so much detail, or heard about it in such a personal way. Many were uncomfortable confronting the truth.
“It is not easy, I’m sure, for a white person to sit among black folks and hear about the indignities to which we have been subjected,” said Keith Johnson, an executive board member of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, an AFT vice president and a member of the task force. “It is not easy to hear that people who look like you were the ones responsible for perpetrating some of those injustices.”
Jeff Grider, executive vice president of the Portland (Ore.) Community College Federation of Classified Employees, a campus security officer and a white man, embraced that struggle. Just as the sexual assault prevention movement focuses not just on women taking action to stay safe but on men taking action to stop assaulting them in the first place, the racial equity movement must both help victims and stop perpetrators, he said. “My challenge as a white person is to teach other white people how not to be racist,” Grider said.
Shelvy Abrams, also an AFT vice president, a PSRP leader in the United Federation of Teachers in New York City and a task force member, described seeing members of the Ku Klux Klan parade through her town when she was four or five years old. Her mother told her “never to hate,” so she suppressed her anger, pushing aside the everyday slights she would experience as a black woman. The AFT changed that. “When we had that task force, I was able to say, ‘OK, let it go,’ ” she said. “Now is the time to speak up for my rights.”
AFT President Randi Weingarten said, “We must do everything in our power to make sure that black lives matter in every classroom, on every street and in every court in America.”
The report highlights recommendations the AFT plans to implement in partnership with its state and local affiliates, including:
- Fund programs that provide alternatives to out-of-school suspensions and offer meaningful opportunities for black male students.
- Ensure that all schools are safe and welcoming spaces for students and educators by replacing zero-tolerance policies with restorative justice and fairer enforcement.
- Develop and implement programs to intentionally help identify, recruit, support and retain black male educators and staff.
- Provide professional development and cultural competency training that helps teachers and other school staff understand their own personal biases.
- Create review processes in schools to ensure that black male students are treated fairly.
- Develop strategies, mentoring and counseling to create greater opportunity for black males to attend college.
- Establish partnerships with trade unions to develop apprenticeship programs that provide job training and placement in trade careers that can open the door to economic opportunity for black men.
- Expand our work with the Conferences of Chief Justices to help bridge the gap between minority and low-income communities and court leadership through collaborations to increase public trust and confidence in the states’ courts.
Other PSRPs on the task force are encouraging fellow members to pick up this work at the local level. PSRP Chair Ruby Newbold of Detroit, an AFT vice president, urges members to read the summary report.
PSRP leader Kathy Chavez of New Mexico, also an AFT vice president, notes the AFT’s history of promoting social justice and urges members to start teaching tolerance to their youngest students.
And PSRP leader Shellye Davis of Connecticut points out how universal the message is.
“This work affects every single one of us—it doesn’t matter our skin color,” she says. “We can’t turn back on what we started, so I hope we’ll all be part of it.”