by Christopher Paslay
Philadelphia educational leaders have yet to adequately condemn the widespread violence destroying Philadelphia. Instead, they have insulted hardworking white teachers with outlandish racial demagoguery.
For the past five days, violence and rioting have gripped the city of Philadelphia. Late Saturday night, a Philadelphia police officer was hit by a car in Center City, while 12 other officers suffered injuries “while attempting to control crowds, make arrests, prevent property breaches, and other acts of vandalism,” according to Philadelphia Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw.
Police cars have been smashed and set on fire, and scores of businesses and stores have been looted and vandalized. Several black-owned businesses have been destroyed, like Elliott Broaster’s Smoke N Things shop on Cecil B Moore. Broaster, a Temple grad, watched what took years to build get destroyed in a matter of minutes. “When I got home alone I shed a few tears,” Broaster said. “I saw my business down and it hurt me a lot and especially for my own community to do it to my business, that’s what really (hurt).”
The new anarchist phrase “people over property” is what his fellow community members might say if asked why they destroyed his life’s work, a mantra that has given rioters a license to wreck people’s lives and property — all in the name of George Floyd, a black man who was killed by a reckless and negligent white cop for trying to pass a counterfeit $20 bill.
After the National Guard was deployed and a curfew issued, Philadelphia’s educational leaders decided it was time to weigh in on the situation. Over the past several days, Philadelphia School District officials have sent multiple emails to teachers and staff condemning the death of Floyd and America’s white racist society, but no call for calm or to end the pointless looting and violence. Resources were given to teachers to start conversations about anti-racism (an educational framework that teaches ALL whites have a privilege and are complicit in systemic racism), but no material to spark a dialogue about why violence is wrong, or why looting and rioting are not only disrespecting the memory of George Floyd, but also go against the teaching of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers soon followed suit with several memos to its membership, commenting on the “criminalization of blackness” by white society, and of the supposed unwarranted tear-gassing of protesters. No mention of the cop cars being smashed and burned, or of the police being assaulted with bricks and bottles, or of stores — some of which were owned and operated by African Americans — being looted and vandalized. This violence somehow didn’t exist, and if it did, it was written off as a “protest,” or perhaps legitimized by the mantra “people over property.”
According to Philadelphia’s educational leaders, there is only one lesson to be learned from the chaos descending on Philadelphia over the past five days: America is a racist society, where privileged whites oppress disadvantaged people of color. According to the PFT’s Racial Justice Petition, racism “permeates every facet of our society,” and “the criminalization of blackness is an ever-present scourge on our nation.” Likewise, the “school-to-prison pipeline is real and it threatens the futures and the lives of black and brown children every single day.” In other words, whites are oppressing and criminalizing people of color around every corner and at every turn, especially white teachers and administrators of schools, who, despite dedicating their entire lives to mentoring and educating their students of color, are in actuality setting them up for a life of crime and incarceration.
These are the things the PFT is telling its dues-paying members. That we must take actionable steps “to dismantle a violent system of white supremacy that has jeopardized the very humanity of the students in our classrooms, their families, and our communities.” And how do we end this system? Through anti-racism, as both Philadelphia School District officials and union leaders have stated.
Addressing racism as a system of unequal power between whites and people of color, anti-racism emerged as dissatisfaction grew with multicultural education, which only superficially dealt with the issue of systemic racism. As University of South Dakota sociologist Jack Niemonen wrote in his paper after doing an exhaustive analysis of 160 peer-reviewed journal articles on the subject:
Generally, anti-racist education is understood as a set of pedagogical, curricular, and organizational strategies that hope to promote racial equality by identifying, then eliminating, white privilege. . . . One of its strengths, it is claimed, is the ability to move beyond prejudice and discrimination as a problem to be corrected in individuals in order to examine critically how institutional structures support racist practices economically, politically, and culturally.
Anti-racism’s mission to eliminate white privilege is notable, in that it operates from a zero-sum mentality, and associates Whiteness with oppression and structural racism. By redefining “racism” to mean inherent white privilege and oppression, all whites become guilty by default, even those whites who are caring people free from discrimination. However, addressing systemic injustice starts with personal accountability and action, as anti-racists call on American educators to self-reflect and personally adopt anti-racist ideologies in their lives and classrooms. Therefore, “Whiteness” solely as a systemic, non-individual entity with its own existence is a logical fallacy (see here), and when anti-racists speak of Whiteness, they can only be referring to the cultures, behaviors, and attitudes of those who identify as “white.”
The PFT has acknowledged they are committed to ongoing professional development on anti-racist practices, as has the Philadelphia School District. Loose translation: they are stereotyping all whites as racists, and are claiming their cultures, behaviors, and attitudes are the reason why people of color suffer. In reality, anti-racism is anti-white.
The advancement of one group should not depend on the disruption, de-centering, or dismantling of another, either individually, culturally, or systemically. Bringing positive change is a two-way street between whites and people of color, and involves cooperation and synergy; approaches which divide learning communities into political identity groups, and separate teachers and students into “oppressors” and “oppressed,” are misguided and counterproductive. As educators, we should focus on unity over division, and refrain from stereotyping entire groups of people.