Not All My Teacherfolk Are My Kinfolk

Jose Vilson Jose, Race

Tiffanie Drayton’s open letter to the teachers who wore NYPD t-shirts on the first day of school ought to be printed and passed around in every staff meeting:

To your Black and Latino students, many of whom must have serious conversations with their parents about safeguarding their person from those charged to serve and protect them — the NYPD — your actions are deeply hurtful. Any remaining innocence they brought with them to the classroom that enabled them to readily accept you, a White person, as a loving, caring, respecting authority figure has been undermined. The relationships students and teachers struggle to build across racial divides can only be maintained when both parties respect one another; their history and most importantly their struggle. It is quite a delicate process that requires objectivity, fairness, empathy and most importantly, sensitivity. Traits and characteristics that the you, the “educators” obviously lack based on your outrageous choice to wear those shirts, despite being warned against it by your own union.

This set of teachers only underlined the oft-held perception, mostly from people of color, that anyone who works in an authoritative position cannot be fully trusted. By wearing those shirts, the teachers immediately made a connection for the students and parents between two agents of the state who have historically underserved people of color. Even with those of us who are thankful for the services both the police and schools provide for the public, many of us have historically had a distrust of them, which has also allowed for others to take advantage of that mistrust. The same can be said for our fire departments, hospitals, postal workers, or any entity created by our government.

Institutionalism racism is by design, and often, we are the embodiment of the institution.

Here’s the thing, too: I have yet to hear a solid argument for why the teachers would wear a Support NYPD t-shirt on the first day. For one, the New York Police Department as a whole holds a special place in New York, cemented every September 11th and every seventh inning stretch at a Yankees or Mets game. When in Rome, we salute the police, so supporting the NYPD comes as regularly as the pledge of allegiance in our schools. Even though teachers and police start off at similar base pay, police prestige is still high. Plus, most of the conversations I see in the media isolate individual bad actors within the police department and don’t condemn the cops as a whole.

But maybe that don’t convince the teachers who took it upon themselves to wear the shirts. They have cousins who serve on the force, and neighbors who have lost their lives in the line of duty, fighting for the safety of their community. At least that’s the argument. [Full disclosure: I do, too, but that’s the equivalent of mentioning a friend of color to dissuade people from calling them a racist.] Maybe you just don’t like UFT President Michael Mulgrew and the UFT’s direction, so this felt like a way to spite him. Maybe you don’t like Al Sharpton, because, believe it or not, a lot of us don’t like him.

Maybe you actually thought Eric Garner should have been killed for resisting arrest because resisting arresting is an obvious violation of his right to live.

All of this falls apart when you hear both Mulgrew and Sharpton say they’re not only not trying to take down the NYPD, they’re hoping for justice for Eric Garner and anyone who’s ever been victimized by the “few bad actors.” So is the argument for wearing these t-shirts that they don’t want to get rid of the “few bad actors” who use the badge and the gun as a means of terrorizing youth of color? Is the argument that, just like teachers who say racist things to our kids or under-educate our children because they probably won’t make it far, the police should be given clemency because they’re “serving the people?”

It seems like it. To wit, this quote from one of the supporters says a lot:

“What happened [to Garner] was a terrible tragedy, and it’s not our place to be deciding who’s guilty and who’s not guilty. I don’t see it as a political message. I just see it as we want our children to respect policemen, to respect firemen, to respect teachers, to respect everybody.”

It’s an argument I’ve heard echoed a few times. So, instead of demanding a full investigation, instead of educating themselves on abundance of young men and women of color who are disproportionately affected the imperfect workings of the law, instead of developing support systems for the children and parents in their community who may have held resentment towards the police after the incident happened in their own neighborhoods and others like Ferguson, MO, instead of asking the police to do a better job of policing their own (something that we as teachers need to take on more as well), they wear T-shirts in support of NYPD.

Because everyone ought to be respected equally. It just so happens that policemen, firemen, and teachers should get respected more equally than others.

Well, OK. Policing, like teaching, is a political act. Instead of creating a teachable moment about how we as a city respond to tragedy, this set of teachers wants to show that, yes, everything is alright and we have no reason to reflect or get better at serving the public. I do mean we this time.

Not all my teacherfolk are my kinfolk.