Silence is akin to consent

Last night, I had the honor to speak at the AFT’s Civil, Human and Women’s Rights Conference in New Orleans. This is what I told the 650 people gathered there, and what I will keep saying as I travel the country.

Addressing protestors in New Orleans who are part of the Fight for $15

We like to believe that, at forks in the road, we people of conscience will always opt for the righteous path, the moral road, the just route.

And largely in our union’s history we have. We have fought against discrimination and the effects of past discrimination, starting with the right to vote. Likewise, we champion a fair and compassionate immigration system, and fight against the xenophobia spread by people from Father Coughlin to Donald Trump. We demand LGBTQ rights, in courtrooms and in classrooms. We fight for equity in schools — for federal funding like Title I, Perkins and IDEA — to help level the playing field for kids who have been denied the education they deserve. We’ve taken the lead on strengthening teacher quality, including finding ways to reform due process so that great teaching is the norm in every public school in the land. And speaking of schools, we fight as the courageous folks from Chicago’s Dyett High School have. Their hunger was to fix, not close, neighborhood public schools. And we’ve confronted the scourge of segregation and Jim Crow — supporting Freedom Schools, being an amicus curiae in support of Brown v. Board of Education, and expelling local unions that refused to integrate.

These are all part of our mission, our soul: to make the promise of America one that is accessible to all, not just the wealthy few. That promise means:

  • That you can send your children to a great neighborhood public school that is safe, collaborative and child-centered, not test-obsessed.
  • That you can give your kids the advantage of a college education without incurring crippling debt.
  • That you’ll get good healthcare when you’re sick.
  • That good jobs are available — where you’ll be treated fairly because you have a union and you’ll get a real raise every once in a while.
  • That you won’t have to choose between your job and taking care of a sick child or an aging parent.
  • That a lifetime of work will culminate in a retirement with dignity.
  • That, regardless of race or creed, or sex or religion or sexuality, you will not fear for your children’s safety on the streets, not be fearful that gun violence or police profiling will rear its ugly head, and that the law — particularly the criminal justice system — will treat people equally.
These are all part of our mission, our soul — to make the promise of America one that is accessible to all, not just the wealthy few.

I can go on and on, but you get the point: These values — which are the core of our union and, I would argue, the core of the labor movement — they’re worth every bit of blood, sweat and tears we shed to secure them.

We have made progress. And we have made progress working with each other, finding common ground, not letting past divisions stop us — the community groups in this room and our unions.

But — Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Rekia Boyd, Walter Scott. Their memories tell us we haven’t made enough progress.

And that is why we are here this year, at this conference. Not to simply champion our own piece of the justice equation, but to really work together, to take on the class and race issues that have been huge obstacles to reclaiming the promise of a better America for all.

You know, America generally has been better for certain groups. Able-bodied people, white males, straight people, and non-Catholic white Christians have always enjoyed certain privileges because of power, majority status or any number of reasons.

The same goes for white people in general. And that has been reinforced for centuries, compounded by hundreds of years of slavery. And, as the Rev. William Barber has so eloquently preached — drawing the line from Reconstruction to Jim Crow to the de facto discrimination created by housing patterns, lack of transportation, inequitable education, poverty, and income and wealth inequality — these patterns persist today, even after the passage of all of our civil rights laws.

When you are one of those other “minorities,” you kind of get it. Like Jews remembering the death of 1.5 million Jewish babies during the Holocaust. Or remembering how closeted we were, even in college in the 1970s, because God forbid anybody knew we were gay. We knew firsthand the effects of straight privilege — and fought it and fought it.

So, for one moment, I want to address my white colleagues. People of color make up about 30 percent of the United States’ population, but they account for 60 percent of those imprisoned. African-American youth are more likely to be incarcerated and to be sentenced to adult prison. Black households have less than one-tenth the wealth of white households, on average. Not since Reconstruction have there been as many attempts to restrict the right to vote.

We must do more than say that we marched in the 1963 March on Washington, or that we helped fight for civil rights laws or that we fund causes. It’s not enough to be against discrimination, to carry the card of the ACLU or the NAACP.

That’s what Black Lives Matter teaches us. I quote: “Demonstrators who chant the phrase are making the same declaration that voting rights and civil rights activist made a half century ago. They are not asserting that black lives are more precious than white lives. They are underlining an indisputable fact — that the lives of black citizens in the country historically have not mattered and have been discounted and devalued.” That was from the New York Times editorial page, but that is what Black Lives Matter teaches me. We must do more.

We must do more than say, “We marched in the 1963 March on Washington.” Or that we helped fight for Civil Rights laws, or we fund causes… It’s not enough to be against discrimination, to carry the card of the ACLU, or the NAACP…

And as uncomfortable as this history is — and in many ways, our complicity with it — our charge is to help change it, to act, as the focus of this conference reminds us, to advance racial justice.

This is our fight — all of us. Please, imagine what it means to be followed in stores by security personnel or suspicious clerks. Imagine insinuations that you got into college or got a job through affirmative action, not achievement. Imagine that you got thrown into jail because you didn’t use a turn signal. Imagine being suffocated by police officers for selling cigarettes, illegally or otherwise. That’s racism. That is bias. That is reality for a lot of black and brown people in America.

As a woman, as a Jew, as a lesbian, as a labor leader in a time of great anti-union animus, I know that other people project their biases on me. But it is nothing like the experience of our African-American brothers and sisters, especially black and brown men and boys.

We need to understand the ways, large and small, that white people are privileged. Studies show that when identical resumes (other than a name like “Brendan” on one and “Jamal” on the other) are submitted for a job opening, Brendan gets called back more often than Jamal.

White Americans can go a long time without ever thinking about the color of their skin. Black and brown Americans have no choice but to confront issues of race every day. Most white Americans haven’t had to — and, honestly, haven’t wanted to — confront these uncomfortable realities. But we must.

The presumption of innocence, the benefit of the doubt, walking without worrying — these should not be hallmarks of white privilege. They are human rights — human rights — that should be enjoyed by all. How can we move forward if those of us who have enjoyed privilege our whole lives don’t at least try to understand the reality of those who have not, and try to address it?

We can change laws. We can change policies. But there is another frontier we must get to — we must change hearts and minds. And that starts with truly understanding racial realities in America. And that requires the privileged to do the hard and perhaps uncomfortable work of digging into unconscious and semiconscious attitudes, biases and behaviors. It’s why, since 2007, I have talked publicly about being gay — and asked people to look at their straight privilege. But this is harder work, confronting racism and confronting our own privilege.

We must build a movement that leads the way.

And we’re trying to do it in our union. We’ve had some of these tough conversations about race where the tears flowed, and we will have more. We must work together to change the institutions that govern our lives so they no longer privilege some and oppress others.

We must build a movement that leads the way. And the AFT will be part of that movement. The AFT’s Racial Equity Task Force, under the tremendous leadership of Lorretta Johnson, will share a report and recommendations with the AFT executive council next week, but here’s a sneak preview: We offer concrete steps to create excellent public schools for all students, with a focus on boys and men of color. We focus on ways to end the institutional racism that pervades our criminal justice system, and on ways to challenge the systems that give 1 percenters obscene advantages. We focus on politics and social change, through movements like Journey for Justice, the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools, the Fight for $15, the DREAMers, Hands Up United and the Dyett hunger strikers, and the connections between us. We know that taking risks, putting ourselves on the line, and educating, educating, educating, are essential to creating social change.

Brothers and sisters, our aspirations are right. Our work will be hard. And we have no choice but to follow this righteous path, this moral road, this just route.

There is a saying from the Talmud: “Silence is akin to consent.” The tragic culmination of so much violence against our brothers and sisters of color and against trans people has shocked and horrified us deeply. We cannot be silent. We must act — and act not just in our own comfort zone, on the fights for economic and educational justice, but on fights for enduring racial justice — as if our lives depend on it. We must not just change laws. We must fight to make black lives matter at the bargaining table, and at the kitchen table; to make black lives matter in every classroom, on every street and in every court in America. This is the moment to push for a transformation in our country. This is the moment to start to transform ourselves, to transform our communities and to transform our world.