The World Mourns for Jews After Pittsburgh’s Synagogue Shooting. What About Other Targets of Hate?

Chin110118RallyAgainstAntisemitismMet5

 

When a white supremacist killed 11 people and wounded 6 others at a Pittsburgh synagogue last weekend, the world took notice.

 

Lights dimmed at the Eiffel Tower and Empire State building.

 

Candlelight vigils were held nationwide – including in Boston, Houston, Washington D.C., Philadelphia, New Orleans, Atlanta, Chicago, New York City and Los Angeles.

 

A host of international leaders from the Pope to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to German Chancellor Angela Merkel expressed outrage, sadness and solidarity.

 

I’ll admit that as a native Pittsburgher and person of Jewish descent, it touched me deeply.

 

For a moment, it seemed like the whole world had stopped spinning and from every corner of the globe people were with us in our tragedy.

 

But at the same time, it was troubling.

 

After all, there were at least two other major hate crimes in the U.S. perpetrated within 72 hours of the shooting.

 

In Kentucky, a white man shot and killed two African-Americans at a Kroger grocery store following a failed attempt to break into a black church.

 

Only two days later, a deranged man who had railed against Democrats and minorities with hate-filled messages online was arrested for allegedly sending mail bombs to people who’d been criticized by President Donald Trump.

 

IMG_8311

 

Where were the candlelight vigils for those atrocities?

 

Where were the international landmarks going dark?

 

Where was the worldwide condemnation?

 

In the wake of Pittsburgh’s tragedy, these other violent acts have been almost forgotten.

 

Yet they’re all symptoms of the same disease – hate and bigotry.

 

Don’t get me wrong.

 

What happened in Pittsburgh was terrible.

 

The Anti-Defamation League estimates that the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue may be the most deadly attack on Jews on American Soil in our history.

 

694940094001_5854810496001_5854807723001-vs

 

But me and mine do not have a monopoly on sorrow.

 

We suffer, but we are not the only ones hurting.

 

This all happened not far from my home.

 

I’ll admit that I am having a really hard time dealing with it.

 

I am not sleeping well.

 

I find myself zoning out in the middle of everyday activities.

 

And I feel this constant anxiety like part of me is expecting to hear a gunshot ringing down the hall at any time.

 

When the alleged shooter entered the sanctuary armed to the teeth and shouted “All Jews must die!” before carrying out his plan, he included me in his declaration.

 

All Jews.

 

That’s me.

 

That’s my daughter. My parents. My family.

 

It means something to me that so many people have come together to repudiate this crime.

 

The Islamic Center of Pittsburgh and other U.S. based Muslim groups donated more than $200,000 for funeral expenses. An Iranian refugee (who hadn’t even been to the three rivers) started a GoFundMe that brought in $1 million for the victims and their families.

 

You can’t go anywhere in Pittsburgh without a memorial, a moment of silence, a shared statement of solidarity and love.

 

At the symphony, musicians read two statements from the stage against hate before playing a Hebrew melody with string quartet.

 

At my school – I’m a teacher – the union decided to collect money for the victims.

 

 

I saw a barge floating down one of the rivers that had the message “Stronger Than Hate” on the side next to the modified Steelers logo where the top star had been replaced by a Star of David.

 

IMG_8309

 

I even saw a similar message on a Wendy’s sign: “PittsburghStrong/ Stronger/ Than Hate”.

 

IMG_8312

 

The community has come together in a way I’ve never seen before.

 

 

But I can’t help wondering why.

 

 

Even after Richard Baumhammers went on a racially motivated killing spree in 2000 murdering five people including two Jews, the response wasn’t this overwhelming.

 

 

Perhaps it’s just that this latest shooting is the final straw.

 

Perhaps it is the moment when our nation finally pulls together and says that enough is enough – We won’t tolerate this kind of hate and violence.

 

I hope that’s it.

 

However, in the shadows of my mind I wonder if it might not be a reflection of the same beast that struck us last weekend.

 

Could it be that we’re willing to put up with violence against brown people, but only draw the line when those targeted have lighter skin?

 

I guess my point – if I have one – is this: Thank you, But.

 

On behalf of Pittsburgh’s Jews, thank you for having our back.

 

If we’re going to survive this, we’re going to need your continued support and solidarity.

 

But it’s not just us.

 

Hate crimes have jumped from about 70 incidents a year in the 1990s to more than 300 a year since 2001. And after Trump was elected, 900 bias-related incidents were reported against minorities within the first 10 days.

 

Our country was built on the genocide of over 110 million indigenous Americans and the enslavement of 30 million Africans.

 

The idea of concentration camps didn’t originate with the Nazis. Hitler got the idea from U.S. treatment of Native Americans.

 

Racism didn’t end with the Civil Rights Movement. It just changed shape and is hidden in the way we practice health care, education, and policing all the way to mass incarceration.

 

 

The shock and solidarity in the wake of the synagogue shooting is appreciated, but it’s not enough to mourn only when 11 Jews are murdered in cold blood.

 

It’s not enough to take a stand against anti-Semitism.

 

We need to join together to fight all of it.

 

We need to be unified against school segregation, police brutality, xenophobia and prejudice in all of its forms.

 

The white supremacist who killed my friends and neighbors targeted us because he thought we were helping brown-skinned immigrants into the country.

 

We can’t just stand for the helpers. We need to stand for those in need of that help.

 

It just won’t work any other way.

 

We can’t just be against violence to light skinned minorities. We have to empathize and protect our brown skinned brothers and sisters, too. We have to love and cherish our LGBTQ neighbors, as well.

 

IMG_8310

 

We have to realize that our freedom, our safety, our very lives depend not just on what rights we have – but on what rights we give to all.

 

That is the only way any of us will ever feel safe again.

 

Through love and solidarity for every. Single. Human. Being.

 

AR-181029559.jpg&MaxH=500&MaxW=900


 

Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

book-3

Disowning the Lie of Whiteness

auschwtiztattoo 

The most vivid memory I have of my great-grandfather is the tattoo on his arm.

 

It wasn’t an anchor or a sweetheart’s name or even the old faithful, “Mom.”

 

It was just a series of digits scrawled across his withered tan flesh like someone had written a note they didn’t want to forget.

 

Beneath the copious salt and pepper hairs was a stark number, the darkest stain on his skin.

 

Gramps is a kindly figure in my mind.

 

He died before I was even 10-years-old. All I really remember about him are wisps of impressions – his constant smile, a whiff of mothballs, how he always seemed to have butterscotch candies.

 

And that tattoo.

 

I think it was my father who told me what it meant.

 

When he was just a young man, Gramps escaped from Auschwitz. A guard took pity on him and smuggled him out.

 

His big European family didn’t make it.

 

My scattered relatives in the United States are all that are left of us.

 

Those are the only details that have come down to me. And Gramps isn’t here to add anything further.

 

But his tattoo has never left me.

 

It’s become a pillar of my subconscious.

 

The fact that someone could look at my kindly Gramps and still see fit to tattoo a numeric signifier on him as if he were an animal.

 

A little reminder that he wasn’t human, that he shouldn’t be treated like a person, that he was marked for erasure.

 

If I look at my own arm, there is no tell-tale integer peeking through the skin. But I am keenly aware of its presence.

 

I know that it’s there in a very real sense.

 

It is only the American dream that hides it.

 

Coming to this country, my family has made a deal, something of a Faustian bargain, but it’s one that most of us have accepted as the price of admission.

 

It’s called whiteness.

 

I am white.

 

Or I get to be white. So long as I suppress any differences to the contrary.

 

I agree to homogenize myself as much as possible and define myself purely by that signifier.

 

White. American. No hyphen necessary.

 

Anything else is secondary. I don’t have to deny it, but I have to keep it hidden until the right context comes to bring it out.

 

During Octoberfest I have license to be German. When at international village I can root for Poland. And on Saturdays I can wear a Kippah and be Jewish.

 

But in the normal flow of life, don’t draw attention to my differences. Don’t show everyone the number on my arm.

 

Because America is a great place, but people here – as in many other places – are drawn to those sorts of symbols and will do what they can to stamp them out.

 

I learned that in school when I was younger.

 

There weren’t a lot of Jewish kids where I grew up. I remember lots of cracks about “Jewing” people down, fighting against a common assumption that I would be greedy, etc. I remember one girl I had a crush on actually asked to see my horns.

 

And of course there were the kids who chased me home from the bus stop. The scratched graffiti on my locker: “Yid.”

 

The message was clear – “You’re different. We’ll put up with you, but don’t ever forget you are NOT one of us.”

 

There were a lot more black kids. They didn’t get it any easier but at least they could join together.

 

It seemed I had one choice – assimilate or face it alone.

 

So I did. I became white.

 

I played up my similarities, never talked about my differences except to close friends.

 

And America worked her magic.

 

 

So I’ve always been aware that whiteness is the biggest delusion in the world.

 

It’s not a result of the color wheel. Look at your skin. You’re not white. You’re peach or pink or salmon or rose or coral or olive or any of a million other shades.

 

Whiteness has as much to do with color as Red has to do with Communism or Green has to do with environmental protection.

 

It is the way a lose confederacy of nationalities and ethnicities have banded together to form a fake majority and lord power over all those they’ve excluded.

 

It’s social protection for wealth – a kind of firewall against the underclass built, manned and protected by those who are also being exploited.

 

It’s like a circle around the wealthy protecting them from everyone outside its borders. Yet if everyone banded together against the few rich and powerful, we could all have a more equitable share.

 

But in America, social class has been weaponized and racialized.

 

You’ll see some media outlets talking about demographics as if white people were in danger of losing their numerical majority in this country in the next few decades. But there’s no way it’s ever going to happen.

 

Today’s xenophobia is a direct response to this challenge. Some are trying to deport, displace and murder as many black and brown people as possible to preserve the status quo.

 

But even if that doesn’t work, whiteness will not become a minority. It will do what it has always done – incorporate some of those whom it had previously excluded to keep its position.

 

Certain groups of Hispanics and Latinos probably will find themselves allowed to identify as white, thereby solidifying the majority.

 

Because the only thing that matters is that there are some people who are “white” and the rest who are not.

 

Long ago, my family experienced this.

 

Before I was born, we got our provisional white card. And if I want, I can use it to hide behind.

 

I’ve been doing it most of my life.

 

Every white person does it.

 

It’s almost impossible not to do it.

 

How do you deny being white?

 

At this point, I could throw back my head and shout to the heavens, “I’M NOT WHITE!” and it wouldn’t matter.

 

Only in a closed environment like a school or a job or in a social media circle can you retain the stigma of appearing pale but still being other.

 

In everyday life, it doesn’t matter what you say, only how you appear.

 

I can’t shout my difference all the time. Every moment I’m quiet, I’ll still be seen as white.

 

It’s not personal. It’s social. It’s not something that happens among individuals. It’s a way of being seen.

 

The best I can do is try to use my whiteness as a tool. I can speak out against the illusion. I can stand up when people of color are being victimized. I can vote for leaders who will do something to dismantle white supremacy.

 

Not because I am some kind of savior, but because I know that my own freedom is tied to the freedom of those being oppressed by a system that provides me certain privileges.

 

But let me be clear: doing so is not the safe way to go.

 

In defending others you make yourself a target.

 

I get threats all the time from racists and Nazis of all sorts. They say they can tell just by looking at me that I’m not white at all.

 

The worst part is I’m not sure what I am anymore.

 

I don’t go to synagogue. I don’t even believe in God. But I’m Jewish enough to have been rounded up like Gramps was, so I won’t deny that identity. It’s just that I’m more than one thing.

 

That’s what whiteness tries to reduce you to – one thing.

 

I don’t want it anymore.

 

I’m not saying I don’t like the protection, the ability to be anonymous, the easy out.

 

But it’s not worth it if it has to come with the creation of an other.

 

I don’t want to live in a world where people of color are considered less than me and mine.

 

I don’t want to live in a world where they can be treated unfairly, beaten and brutalized so that I can get some special advantage.

 

I don’t want to live in a world where human beings are tattooed and numbered and sent to their deaths.

 

Because the Holocaust is not over.

 

American slavery is not over.

 

Neither is Jim Crow or lynching or a thousand other marks of hatred and bigotry.

 

Nazis march unmasked in our streets. Our prisons are the new plantation. And too many of our police use murder and atrocity to ensure the social order.

 

As long as we allow ourselves to be white, there will be no justice for both ourselves and others.

 

So consider this my renunciation of whiteness – and I make it here in public.

 

I know that no matter what I say, I will still be seen as part of the problem. And I will still reap the rewards.

 

But I will use what power is given me to tear it down.

 

I’m burning my white card.

 

I know it’s a symbolic gesture. But I invite my white brothers and sisters to add theirs to the flames.

 

Let us make a conflagration, a pillar of fire into the sky.

 

Let whiteness evaporate as the smoke it is.

 

Let us revel in the natural hues of our faces as we watch it burn.

 


 

Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

WANT A SIGNED COPY?

Click here to order one directly from me to your door!

book-4

You Don’t Have to Be Perfect to Fight Racism. But You Have to Try

Screen Shot 2018-08-16 at 1.50.03 PM

 

I am a white guy who talks about racism.

 

I teach mostly students of color in a western Pennsylvania public school. I write a blog about education and issues of prejudice. And I participate in social justice campaigns to try and redress the inequality all around me.

 

But in my quest to be an anti-racist, one of the most common criticisms people hurl my way is to call me smug:

 

You think you’re so perfect!

 

You’re just suffering from white guilt.

 

You love black people more than your own people.

 

Things like that.

 

Well, I’ll let you in on a little secret.

 

I make mistakes.

 

All. The. Time.

 

I am just like every other white person out there. But I have recognized certain facts about my world and I’m trying to do something about them.

 

America is built on the genocide of over 110 million indigenous Americans and the enslavement of 30 million Africans. The idea of concentration camps didn’t originate with the Nazis. Hitler got the idea from U.S. treatment of Native Americans. Racism didn’t end with the Civil Rights Movement. It just changed shape and was hidden in the way we practiced health care, education, and policing all the way to mass incarceration.

 

And it’s getting worse. Hate crimes have jumped from about 70 incidents a year in the 1990s to more than 300 a year since 2001. And after Trump was elected, 900 bias-related incidents were reported against minorities within the first 10 days.

 

It does not make me special that I am trying to do what little I can about that. It just makes me human.

 

That’s it.

 

I am not perfect.

 

I am no better than anyone else.

 

But I am trying to do the right thing.

 

When I first became a teacher, I had the chance to go to the rich white schools and work with the wealthy white kids. I hated it.

 

I found that I had a real affinity for the struggling students, the poor and minorities.

 

 

Why? Probably because I have more in common with them than the kids who drove to school in better cars than me, wore more expensive clothes and partied with designer drugs.

 

Does that make me better than a teacher who stayed in the suburbs? No. But hopefully it gives me the chance to make a greater difference against white supremacy.

 

 

When I saw how unjust our school system is, I could have gotten out. Law school was definitely an option. So was becoming a technical writer or a job as a pharmaceutical ad rep.

 

 

But I dug in and spoke out.

 

 

I could have left, but who would be there to speak for my students? Who would speak truth to power about high stakes standardized tests, unaccountable charter and voucher schools, inequitable funding and the boondoggle of Common Core Standards?

 

 

So I got active in my union, spoke at rallies, lead marches on incorrigible law-makers and started a blog.

 

Does that make me better than teachers who kept plugging away at their jobs but didn’t rock the boat? No way. But hopefully I have a better chance at helping change things for the better.

 

 

When I saw that politicians in my state wanted to stop the parents of my students from voting by trampling their civil rights with a voter ID law, I started a campaign asking the officials that were tasked with enacting the law to ignore it.

 

 

It was a hard battle that made me do things I was not at all comfortable doing. You try asking a public servant on camera to break the law and go to jail for what he knew was right.

 

Strangely enough, it worked. Along with several other campaigns throughout the state, we got the voter ID law declared unconstitutional by the state Supreme Court.

 

Some people look at that and other accomplishments and think I’m conceited.

 

They say I’m a white savior hogging the spotlight for myself and keeping the very people I’m trying to help in my shadow.

 

That’s not my intention at all.

 

I wouldn’t be anywhere without the help and support of people of color.

 

Everything I’ve done in this fight has been with their help and encouragement.

 

Does that mean I’m impervious to making a racist comment? Does it mean I’ve never participated in a microaggression? Does it mean I see every racist impact of my society and my place in it?

 

Absolutely not.

 

I screw up every day.

 

Multiple times.

 

But that’s the point. You don’t have to be perfect. You just have to try.

 

One of the books that has helped guide me on this journey is Dismantling Racism: A Workbook for Social Change Groups, by Kenneth Jones and Tema Okun.

 

The chapter on “White Supremacy Culture” should be required reading for every activist organization or budding civil rights warrior.

 

The authors offer a list of characteristics that stem from white supremacy that can affect even the best intentioned of groups and individuals. These norms are difficult to name or identify but can lead to major dysfunction:

 

 

“They are damaging to both people of color and to white people. Organizations that are people of color led or a majority people of color can also demonstrate many damaging characteristics of white supremacy culture.”

 

 

And the number one characteristic is Perfectionism.

 

This involves the following bullet points:

 

  • “little appreciation expressed among people for the work that others are doing; appreciation that is expressed usually directed to those who get most of the credit anyway

 

  • more common is to point out either how the person or work is inadequate

 

  • or even more common, to talk to others about the inadequacies of a person or their work without ever talking directly to them

 

  • mistakes are seen as personal, i.e. they reflect badly on the person making them as opposed to being seen for what they are – mistakes

 

  • making a mistake is confused with being a mistake, doing wrong with being wrong

 

  • little time, energy, or money put into reflection or identifying lessons learned that can improve practice, in other words little or no learning from mistakes

 

  • tendency to identify what is wrong; little ability to identify, name, and appreciate what is right”

 

 

Solutions offered to this problem are:

 

“Develop a culture of appreciation, where the organization takes time to make sure that people’s work and efforts are appreciated;

 

develop a learning organization, where it is expected that everyone will make mistakes and those mistakes offer opportunities for learning;

 

create an environment where people can recognize that mistakes sometimes lead to positive results;

 

separate the person from the mistake;

 

when offering feedback, always speak to the things that went well before offering criticism;

 

ask people to offer specific suggestions for how to do things differently when offering criticism.”

 

These are things we should keep in mind as we try to move forward in this fight.

 

Certainly white people can be resistant to criticism and see any and every comment or appraisal as personal or demeaning – especially if that remark is made by a person of color.

 

Frankly, white people need to get a thicker skin about it. We need to realize that this impulse to personalize analysis is often a psychological attempt to avoid looking at oneself and what unconscious aspects of the social order one has internalized.

 

However, those offering criticism must realize that context is everything. We must create an environment where such remarks are constructive. Otherwise, they’ll do more harm than good.

 

None of this is easy.

 

But if we want to be anti-racists, that’s not the job we signed up to do.


 

Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

WANT A SIGNED COPY?

Click here to order one directly from me to your door!

book-4

Antwon Rose’s Life Matters

antwon_rose.0

 

Antwon Rose could have been my student.

 

I teach 7th and 8th grade language arts in a district located minutes away from where the 17-year-old was shot and killed by police.

 

East Pittsburgh, the neighborhood where his car was stopped and where he ran from officers before being shot three times in the back, is minutes from my house.

 

He went to Woodland Hills School District, minutes from my house.

 

Michael Rosfeld, the officer who just started working at East Pittsburgh less than two hours before he shot and killed Antwon, had been fired with cause from his previous job as a security officer at the University of Pittsburgh, where I got both my graduate and undergraduate degrees and where my wife works.

 

The poem Antwon wrote about not wanting to become another statistic that was read aloud at a protest was the product of an assignment I give my own classes.

 

5b2d0d9d2200006a03eec478

 

So I say again – he could have been my student.

 

I have had many children like him.

 

Most of my kids are like him.

 

Promising, smart, burdened by fears no teenager should have to face.

 

When I look at the smiling picture of Antwon released to the media, he looks like so many others I have known and loved.

 

How many kids have passed before me worried that they’ll be the victims of police violence?

 

How many kids have sat in those seats trying to concentrate on my work while anxious about the reality of the streets they have to walk just to get home?

 

How many kids have been afraid that if the worst happens, the rest of us will forget their humanity?

 

I am a white teacher. I don’t know what it’s like to live as a black person in America except by extension of what my kids and others tell me.

 

When my daughter goes to school or plays in the yard, I don’t have to worry the police will consider her a threat simply because of the amount of melanin in her skin.

 

But I do see how white people like me blame a 17-year-old kid for his own death.

 

If he hadn’t been in that car, he’d still be alive. If he hadn’t run from police, they wouldn’t have shot.

 

Maybe. Maybe not.

 

But being in the wrong place at the wrong time shouldn’t bring with it a death sentence. Running away shouldn’t bring with it the finality of the grave.

 

Yesterday Allegheny County Medical Examiner’s Office ruled the death a homicide. That’s a good start.

 

But plenty of questions remain.

 

Rosfeld is still on unpaid leave. Why hasn’t he been arrested?

 

Civil rights writer Shaun King reports that when Rosfeld worked at the University of Pittsburgh, he had a history of harassing black students and was only let go after he harassed one of the chancellor’s own children. If true, was that reported to East Pittsburgh before they hired him?

 

Why is it police can apprehend white shooters with no violence, but when a suspect is black the rules of engagement start and end with bloodshed?

 

Protests have rocked this city for two days and will continue today.

 

And I’m glad.

 

We need answers to those and more questions. We need justice for Antwon.

 

But more than anything we need to recognize that he was a human being.

 

He was a little boy with his whole life ahead of him.

 

His life matters.

 

I don’t say “mattered” because even though he’s gone, his life still matters.

 

We can’t bring him back, but we can honor who he was.

 

We can recognize his common humanity is the same as anyone else’s.

 

We can give him and his family justice.

 

And we must – we MUST – make sure that things like this don’t happen again.

 

I’ve had far too many students die at the end of a gun.

 

At absolute minimum, the hand holding it shouldn’t belong to someone tasked with the job to serve and protect.

 


 

Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

WANT A SIGNED COPY?

Click here to order one directly from me to your door!

book-1

Dear Kanye, The Same Impulse That Enslaved Black Minds on the Plantation Stokes Your Admiration for Trump

kanye-west-trump-inauguration-not-perform

 

Kanye West is a brilliant musician.

 

I start with that reminder because he’s also a jackass.

 

The same iconoclastic impulses that make him so fascinating to listen to on the mic make him almost impossible to take seriously anywhere else.

 

About a week ago, he took to Twitter to say the most controversial thing he could think of – that he still likes Donald Trump:

 

“You don’t have to agree with trump but the mob can’t make me not love him. We are both dragon energy. He is my brother. I love everyone. I don’t agree with everything anyone does. That’s what makes us individuals. And we have the right to independent thought.”

 

Say what you will, he got the mileage he wanted out of it. People’s heads exploded all over the place.

 

How can a black man (other than Ben Carson) support perhaps the most racist Chief Executive in the history of this country?

 

Trump was endorsed by David Duke (a former KKK Grand Dragon), his supporters include white nationalists (Read: Nazis) whom he refuses to criticize, he was a notorious birther refusing to accept any of the overwhelming evidence that Barack Obama was a U.S. citizen, and his real estate company avoided renting to African Americans and gave preferential treatment to white people. And that’s only the most cursory list! I could go on and on and on!

 

But Kanye loves him. Okay. How do you feel about James Earl Ray? When he shot and killed the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., did he, too, have Dragon Energy?

 

Perhaps Duke does – literally. Yet Yeezy ain’t tweeting him any support!

 

However, Kanye wasn’t done. Today on TMZ, he doubled down on his contrarianism:

 

When you hear about slavery for 400 years … For 400 years? That sounds like a choice.

 

And:

 

You were there for 400 years and it’s all of y’all. It’s like we’re mentally imprisoned.

 

Okay, Kanye.

 

Hold up.

 

Yes, slavery works by imprisoning minds as well as bodies. The same with our contemporary racial and economic cast system.

 

But to call slavery a choice – while true in a sense – minimizes how constrained that choice was.

 

Before the Emancipation Proclamation, most slaves had a choice between life in bondage or torture and death. They could try to run, try to organize and revolt or just try to survive.

 

What kind of choice is that?

 

Run and you might get caught – risk the little you have and risk the safety of anyone you care about for a dim chance at freedom.

 

And that was if there was anywhere to go. Without connections on the Underground Railroad or other sympathetic forces, the very idea of trying to free one’s self must have seemed next to impossible.

 

Sure, you could try to organize and overthrow your taskmasters – but that’s generally not how human psychology works. You convince yourself that going along is better, that if you just listen to authority, you’ll survive. It’s the same thought 6 million Jewish people had as they were being marched to the gas chambers.

 

I guess that’s your point. Human psychology is wrong. It’s better to fight than go along.

 

Then how do you explain your support for Trump?

 

You’re exercising your right to free thought by voicing an unpopular opinion – BECAUSE IT’S UNPOPULAR. But that’s not freedom – that’s merely thesis and antithesis. Everyone says THIS, so I say THAT.

 

I imagine plenty house slaves did the same thing back on the plantation. “The Master is kind and caring and he looks out for me.”

 

That’s really what you’re saying when you praise Trump.

 

One of the criticisms often leveled at rap music is how much it idolizes wealth and conspicuous consumption.

 

As a famous hip hop artist once said:

 

“ …And this rich n– racism
That’s that “Come in, please buy more
What you want, a Bentley? Fur coat? A diamond chain?
All you blacks want all the same things”
Used to only be n–s now everybody playing
Spending everything on Alexander Wang…”

 

That was you, Kanye, on “New Slaves” back in 2013.

 

The Yeezus who spouted those rhymes was criticizing exactly the kind of BS you’re spewing today.

 

Yeah, Trump is a symbol of having made it in America. But if he’s who you emulate, you’ve betrayed everything you used to stand for.

 

Fight the power – don’t befriend it!

 

Overthrow our classist, racist society – don’t defend it!

 

But who am I to criticize you? You’re a black man and I’m just a white observer. If you want to throw shade on your own people, go for it. If you want to trade in rebellion for a MAGA hat, you do it. That’s your right. Just don’t be surprised if no one thanks you for it.

Burning Down the House at TEDxCCSU – Speaking Truth to Power with a BOOM!

31265515_10157264415409018_6319846807568384_n

 

 

There’s a reason our society rarely hands teachers the microphone.

We’ll tell you the truth.

Oh, we’re too good mannered to be brazen about it. We’d rather encourage you for trying than criticize you for getting something wrong.

But if you ask us for truth, that’s usually what you’ll get.

Just ask any first grader.

“Is my finger painting good, Miss Pebbles?”

“Oh my, it is!”

“Really?”

“Why yes. I love what you did with that smear of yellow and blue in the corner. Where they overlap, it turns green.”

“Do you think it’s good enough to compete against the seniors in the high school?”

“Maybe you’d better practice a bit more, Dear. At least wait until you can spell your name correctly before devoting your life to art.”

That’s why I was so delighted to get an invitation to do a TED talk.

Here was my chance to tell it like it is.

Sure, some people look to TED for encouragement and life affirming inspiration.

But the way I see it, the only real affirmation is honesty.

Otherwise, it’s just a bromide, a deception, an intellectual hard candy to plop into your skull and let your cranium suck on until all the sugar is gone.

We’ve all seen these TED talks on YouTube or the Internet – some well-dressed dude or dudette standing in front of a crowd with a headset microphone and a grin offering anecdotes and words of wisdom to a theater full of eager listeners.

But after hundreds of thousands of talks in scores of countries, the format has almost become a parody of itself. At many of these events, you’re just as likely to find some Silicon Valley tech millionaire waxing philosophic about his casual Friday’s management style as you are to hear something truly novel.

No, the way I see it, the TED extravaganzas are just asking for a bundle of truth wrapped in a plain brown box – quiet, unassuming and ticking!

For me, doing one was a long time coming.

The first I heard about it was at United Opt Out’s Education and Civil Rights Summit in Houston, Texas, two years ago.

I was rooming with Jesse “The Walking Man” Turner – an education professor at Central Connecticut University and famed social justice activist. He’s been involved with everyone from Moral Monday’s to S.O.S. Save Our Schools. But he’s most well-known for walking from Hartford to Washington, DC, to protest school privatization and standardization  – a feat he did not once, but twice!

Anyway, one night as I was fading into sleep, he whispered to me from across the room, “Steve, you ever thought about doing a TED talk?”

“Huh? Whas tha, Jesse?”

“A TED talk. You ever thought about doing one?”

“Oh I don’t know. That would be pretty cool, I guess.”

“I organize an independent TED event at my school every year. We should get you on the schedule.”

And that was it.

I think. If there was any more to that conversation my conscious mind wasn’t involved in it.

But then the following year I got a call from Jesse asking if I was ready to come to Connecticut.

I wasn’t. I’d just had two mild heart attacks and wasn’t in a condition to go anywhere. I could barely gather the strength to go to school and teach my classes.

What followed was a year of recovery.

I dedicated myself to my students and my blog and made it through the year. In the summer, I put together my favorite on-line articles into a book for Garn Press – “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform.”

After it was published in November, I worked to promote it, going from event-to-event, book store-to-book store lecturing, signing, and listening. I was even invited to Chatham College to address their graduating class of teaching students.

Then another surprise. I was one of three educators in western Pennsylvania nominated for a Champions of Learning Award in Teaching from the Consortium for Public Education. In the final analysis, I didn’t end up winning the award, but it was a huge honor.

And then to top it all off, Jesse called me back and asked me if I was ready to come to Hartford and give the TED talk another try.

I jumped on it.

How could I say no?

This year has been like a second chance, a new lease on life. I’ve been eating healthier, exercising, losing weight and taking nothing for granted.

But that comes with certain responsibilities.

I couldn’t go there and just mouth platitudes and self-help advice. I couldn’t just tell some touchy-feely stories from my classroom and conclude about how great it is to be a teacher.

Even though it is great – the best job in the world.

But our profession is under attack.
Public schools are being targeted for destruction. The powers that be are using segregation, targeted disinvestment and standardized testing to destabilize public schools and replace them with privatized ones.

The school house is on fire! This is no time for heart-warming stories. It’s time for anger, agitation and activism!

So that’s what I decided to speak about.

Frankly, that wasn’t what I originally planned.

At first, I was going to talk about how society expects too much of teachers – how we expect educators to do it all.

But then the opportunity came to “practice” my speech in front of my entire school building.

I thought to myself, is THIS really what I want to talk about?

If I only get one shot at this – and I probably will get only one shot – do I really want to spend it on society’s unfair expectations?

That’s when I scrapped what I had and started over, this time focusing on “The Plot to Destroy Public Education.”

I must have rewritten my presentation at least five times.

Jesse said I’d have no more than 15 minutes so I practiced just about every night to make sure I was within that time.

The word may have gotten out around my school because the invitation to speak to the entire building quickly evaporated. Maybe there really was a scheduling mix up. Maybe not.

But it didn’t matter. My presentation was ready like a bomb – no hand holding, no concessions, just the truth.

The weeks flew by.

Before I knew it, it was time to fly to Connecticut. I couldn’t believe it was really happening.

When I got there, Jesse picked me up from the airport. He was a consummate host. He couldn’t have treated me better if I was royalty. He paid for my hotel, paid for most meals, drove me everywhere, kept me in good company and entertainment and even gave me a “Walking Man” mug as a token of his appreciation.

I was the only person flying in from outside of the Hartford area. Most of the other seven speakers were from there or had roots in the community.

All but two others were PhDs. The list of names, vocations and stories were impressive. Dr. Dorthy Shaw, a famed education and women’s studies professor, talked about surviving cancer. Dr. Noel Casiano, a sociologist, criminal justice expert and marriage counselor, told a heartbreaking personal story about the three people who mentored him from troubled teen to successful adult. Dr. Kurt Love, a CCSU professor focusing on social justice and education, talked about the greed underlying our economic and social problems. Dr. Barry Sponder, another CCSU professor focusing on technology in education, talked about flipped classrooms. Dr. Johnny Eric Williams, a sociology professor, talked about the myth of whiteness and how it corrupts how we speak about race.

Elsa Jones and her son Brian Nance were the only other non-PhDs. Jones is an early education consultant and the daughter of the Rev. Dr. William Augustus Jones, Jr., a famed civil rights leader who worked with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

They were the ones I bonded with the most. All four of us went out for pizza after the talks.

But when I first entered the Welte Auditorium in the Central Connecticut State University campus, it was truly frightening.

The building could hold hundreds, perhaps thousands of people. Yet organizers had limited the audience to only a hundred. All the seats were up on the stage.

There was a little circular rug where we were to stand and the camera people were setting everything up.

Behind us, a ceiling high blue-purple backdrop would showcase the TED logo and any slides we had prepared.

31392968_10155840677638860_1951634311957953781_n

Which brings up an interesting distinction.

This was not a corporate TED event organized by the TED conference and sanctioned by their foundation. It was a TED “X” event, which means it was independently organized.

TED licenses its name for these grassroots X-events. There are a list of rules that organizers must follow. For example, all tickets to the event must be free. Contrast that with the corporate TED events where tickets go for thousands of dollars.

I was glad I was where I was. This was going to be the real deal – a thoughtful discussion of authentic issues. And somehow I was up there with these incredible thinkers and activists.

The moment came. Drs. Shaw and Casiano had already spoken. I got up from my seat in the front row to get my lapel microphone attached.

Jesse gave me a warm introduction letting everyone in on the secret of my tie – the design was a picture of my daughter repeated to infinity.

So I walked to my mark and started speaking.

It seems there was some sort of technical difficulty with the microphone. My voice didn’t appear to be coming from the speakers – or if it was, it wasn’t projecting very well. So I spoke louder.

Then Jesse came from the wings and gave me a hand mic and a music stand for my notes.

It took a moment to get used to handling the microphone, the clicker for my slides and my iPad (where I had my notes), but I got the hang of it.

And I was off and running.

I said it. I said it all.

The audience certainly didn’t seem bored. All eyes were on me. A few heads were nodding in agreement. Some faces seemed stunned.

When I ended, there was universal applause. A few folks patted me on the back when I got back to my seat and shook my hand.

And that was it.

I thoroughly enjoyed the remaining presentations but it was hard to concentrate in the post-TED elation.

Jones and Nance were probably the closest to what I was talking about and we got along like we’d known each other for years.

When I got back to the hotel, I felt elation and exhaustion in equal measure.

I had done it.

After months, years of planning, it was over.

Jesse tells me the video will be on-line in a matter of weeks. (I’ll revise this post with the video when it goes live.) Though he did mention that one point in my presentation made him a bit nervous – I had called out Bill Gates for his role in the destruction of public schools. However, Gates is a big donor to TEDs. Jesse half-jokingly said that the TED folks might take issue with that and refuse to upload my speech.

But whatever. I told the truth. If that gets me censored, so be it.

This will be something I’ll never forget.

I’m sorry this article has gone on so long, but there was much to tell. It’s not every day that someone like me gets such a stage and such a potential audience.

Hopefully, my video and my speech will be seen by many people who have never heard of this fight before. Hopefully it will open minds and stoke people to act.

And hopefully the mic issues at the opening won’t be distracting.

Thank you for following my blog and being there with me on this incredible journey.

I left nothing important unsaid. I gave it my all.

Now to see where it goes.

How to Oppose White Supremacists Without Becoming a Monster, Yourself

Men-Hug-Rally

 

There is a danger in opposing white supremacists.

 

In confronting such an odious set of beliefs, you can justify suspending your own strongest held moral convictions as a necessary end to defeating their prejudices.

 

It’s easy to see how this might happen.

 

When hearing an ignorant troll like Richard Spencer arrogantly spouting warmed over Nazi propaganda, it is quite natural to wish to issue a rebuttal in the form of your fist.

 

You can follow the logic all the way from your heart to your knuckles.

 

Your thought process might go something like this:

 

This fool is so enamored with violence, let him suffer the consequences of it.

 

But that is conceding the point.

 

That is giving the white supremacist his due. It’s entering his world and playing by his rules.

 

Oh, I’m sure it’s satisfying, but it’s the wrong way to respond.

 

However, on the other hand one can’t simply smile and nod during Spencer’s tirade and then expect to reciprocate with an academic treatise.

 

No cogent, logical, professorial come back is going to counter the purely emotional arguments made by white supremacists.

 

They are stoking fear and hatred. Logic is useless here.

 

So what are anti-racist anti-facists like ourselves supposed to do when confronted with people like this?

 

We have to walk a razor’s edge between two poles.

 

On the one hand, we can’t tolerate intolerance.

 

I know that’s paradoxical. But it’s true.

 

As Vienna-born philosopher Karl Popper put it in The Open Society and Its Enemies, unlimited tolerance leads to the destruction of tolerance.

 

If we tolerate the intolerant, if we give them equal time to offer their point of view and don’t aggressively counter their views, they will inevitably resort to violence and wipe our side out.

 

This doesn’t mean immediately punching them in the face or violently attacking them. For Popper, we should let rationality run its course, let them have their say and usually their ideas will be rejected and ignored.

 

However, if this doesn’t happen and these ideas start to take root as they did in Nazi Germany (or perhaps even today in Trump’s America), then Popper says we must stop them by “fists or pistols.”

 

In short, Popper writes:

 

“We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant. We should claim that any movement preaching intolerance places itself outside the law, and we should consider incitement to intolerance and persecution as criminal, in the same way as we should consider incitement to murder, or to kidnapping, or to the revival of the slave trade, as criminal.”

 

Popper believed in the free expression of ideas, but when one of those ideas leads to violence, it is no longer to be tolerated. Then it is outside the law and must be destroyed.

 

DHtG6mmUwAAEYm6

 

What then do we do with our commitment to nonviolence?

 

Do we reluctantly agree to push this constraint to the side if push comes to shove?

 

No. This is the other pole we must navigate between.

 

On the second to last day of his life, April 3, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., gave a speech stating his unequivocal commitment to the principal of nonviolence:

 

“It is no longer a choice between violence and nonviolence in this world; it’s nonviolence or nonexistence. That is where we are today.”

 

The next day he was shot to death. These are among the last words he spoke in public.

 

That King was to be martyred in the cause of justice would not have surprised him.

 

He had already received several death threats and attempts on his life.

 

He knew that his continued efforts to fight for human dignity would probably result in the premature ending of his life someday. He knew all that yet he still prescribed nonviolence.

 

There was simply no other way for him to exist.

 

Mahatma Gandhi, who influenced Dr. King and our American fight for civil rights with his own nonviolent revolution in India, went even further.

 

At the start of WWII, he wrote that the British should lay down their arms and let the Nazis invade the United Kingdom without offering any violent resistance. They should even let themselves be slaughtered if it came to it. He made similar remarks to Jews facing the Holocaust.

 

That’s pretty extreme.

 

But can you imagine its effect?

 

No one followed Gandhi’s advice. We fought the Germans in WWII and won. We crushed their pathetic thousand year Reich and threw their prejudiced ideals on the trash heap of history.

 

And yet here we are today. In Charlottesville. In Portland. In Washington, DC.

 

The scared and ignorant have rooted through the trash and recycled those same odious ideals.

 

The war ended, but the battle goes on.

 

Would that have happened had we met violence with nonviolence?

 

I don’t know the answer. No one does.

 

But it respects an important point – we can’t ultimately fight our way to peace. Not without killing everyone else. And then why would the solitary survivor wish to live?

 

There is an inherent flaw in humanity that continually incites us to kill each other.

 

We can never have true peace unless we find a way to stamp out that flaw.

 

Nonviolence is the closest we’ve ever come to finding a solution.

 

So there you have it, the Scylla and Charybdis of our current dilemma.

 

We must try to navigate between them.

 

We must not tolerate the intolerance of the white supremacists. But we must also not allow our opposition of them to change us into that which we hate.

 

I know it sounds impossible. And I certainly don’t have all the answers about how we do it.

 

To start with, when white supremacists advocate violence of any kind, we must seek legal action. We must use every tool of the law, the courts, and law enforcement to counter them.

 

This requires political power. We must organize and keep them politically marginalized and weak.

 

We must take every opportunity to speak out against white supremacy. We must continue to make their ideal socially and culturally repugnant. At the same time, we must also reach out to them in the spirit of healing and love. We can’t give up on them, because they, too, are our brothers and sisters.

 

Yet if they resort to violence, we can feel justified in protecting ourselves and those they wish to victimize.

 

But the keyword here is “protect.”

 

We should go no further. We should not attack.

 

I know that is a hard line to walk.

 

Maybe it’s not even possible. Still, we must try.

 

It might feel satisfying to punch a Nazi. Heck! I’m sure it would. But we cannot allow ourselves to become like them.

 

Because the real enemy is not them.

 

It is their fear and ignorance.

 

And if we’re honest, we hold the same disease deep inside our own hearts.

 

We cannot defeat racism and prejudice unless we overcome our own flawed humanity.