If you believe black lives matter, then you will defend effective black teachers in whatever organization they work.
Teach For America announced at its annual Educators Conference on Friday that alumni Brittany Packnett and DeRay Mckesson are this year’s winners of the Peter Jennings Award for Civic Leadership for their contributions to education and the Black Lives Matter movement. The Jennings award is presented annually to Teach For America alumni who “embody the organization’s core values and whose work in the last year has contributed to systemic change on a broad scale.”
You would think Packnett and Mckesson’s honoring would warm anyone who says they believe black lives matter. As the executive director of Teach For America–St. Louis, Packnett helped establish a substitute school at the Ferguson library when the local district delayed starting school because of the unrest stemming from the killing of Michael Brown. Mckesson’s abilities to use social media to project the protests in Ferguson, Baltimore, Charleston and elsewhere allowed thousands, who were unable to get to those protests, a digital means to lend support.
Unfortunately, black liberation and black unity has been decimated in the crossfire of the reform wars. In spite of the work many teachers have done while in their roles, supposed enemies obsequiously adhere to our respective script that reads under no circumstances should we acknowledge the adversary even when basic courage and service are on display. In this case, many non-TFA educators won’t find comfort in the success of Packnett and Mckesson. But everyone is guilty of pettiness.
Applauding Packnett and Mckesson shouldn’t be up for debate. Salute Packnett and Mckesson for loving black communities.
Now here comes the shade.
I wrote why TFA detractors like Michele Malkin hate educators like Packnett and Mckesson in the article Black people are feared. Black teachers are threats. When I wrote the article, I anticipated pushback from some usual suspects who oppose education reform. But I didn’t expect as many black people to oppose my defense of Packnett and Mckesson simply because of their affiliation with TFA. I received texts, direct messages and phone calls questioning their legitimacy and mine.
In outright refusals to salute educators like Packnett and Mckesson, black educators reveal their unflinching loyalty to the brands of white-led movements and organizations. One of my Facebook friends commented:
Imagine if those young, gifted, Black and committed to social justice DO Something …that would be a Real threat!
Another commenter wrote:
Progressives in education don’t hate TFA because it represents a “White agenda.” We criticize it for hurting our communities, teacher education, student achievement, and public education. TFA has diversified, and they should be applauded for that. However, it does not change the fact that it is a counter-productive organization under the guise of “promoting equality.”
Another representative message I received read:
They are still taking jobs away from quality black teachers. I can’t support that.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s okay to question TFA (or unions for that matter), but to not offer the same criticism and animus to the discrimination and inequity where you work goes beyond being a hypocrite. Black educators can’t judge people by their employers.
The rhetoric of the reform wars isn’t making room for black educators to validate our shared experiences. The polarization, self-righteousness and cynicism may be good for cable news programming and Twitter battles. However for black folk, snark seems to aggravate the deep wounds of internalized racism that affect us all.
From years of playing the dozens, I’ve learned how to cut people with words thousands of ways. This “skill” comports neatly with the shaming and naming tactics commonly used in organizing. However for us black folk, throwing shade and side-eyes to people like Packnett and Mckesson are as much symptoms of self-hate as they are organizing tactics. Black folk have mastered the art of being mean. And we’re being used for that.
We should be angry at institutional racism and oppression wherever it is, but blacks can’t afford to offer criticism in the absence of love. We need to cheer black liberation efforts from people in all of our organizations because social justice work is as ubiquitous as institutional racism.
Not applauding Teach for America alums who are serving our children inside and out of the classroom simply for where they work reveals that many educators don’t understand black lives matter.