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Professor Lois Weiner explains that teachers and the teachers union must take concrete steps to repair their relationship with communities of color

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ANGEL ELLIOTT, TRNN PRODUCER: I’m Angel Elliott for The Real News Network in Baltimore.

Protests across the country in the wake of the New York and Ferguson grand jury’s failure to indict the officers involved in the Eric Garner and Michael Brown cases have focused on police officers’ treatment of citizens, charging that law enforcement officers’ excessive use of force, criminalization, and brutalization of citizens must end.

But less attention has been paid to the role that teachers and teachers unions can play demanding justice for unarmed black men who’ve been killed by officers.

Joining us to discuss this issue from New York City is Lois Weiner. Lois is a professor of education at New Jersey City University. Her most recent book is The Future of Our Schools: Teachers Unions and Social Justice.

Thanks for joining us, Lois.

LOIS WEINER, PROF. EDUCATION, NEW JERSEY CITY UNIV.: Thank you for the invitation.

ELLIOTT: So you long argued that the legacy of mistrust between communities of color and the teachers union exist. Explain to us the origins of this contentious relationship.

WEINER: Well, I think we need to put it in context that the union, the whole entire education establishment, as was the society, I want to say, and the labor movement as a whole, has been really complicitous in racism and in segregation. And the teachers union, from its earliest days–the first local was in Chicago at the turn of the century–is no different from the rest of the labor movement and the rest of the society. And so we have two parallel movements growing up after the Civil War and industrialization and the growth of the labor movement. So we have to teachers unions, and then we also have movement for social justice and equality among the African-Americans.

And these movements developed in a parallel way until, without a fraternal relationship–and the teachers unions were complicitous in allowing segregation of public education and inferior education to be given to kids of color.

In the ’60s, the civil rights movement, of course, had a rebirth, and that was exactly the time that the teacher union movement had a rebirth in the 1960s. And the modern conflict between those two movements really began in the cauldron of the cities in the 1960s with sometimes violent strikes that occurred. And two groups that I maintain should be allies could not see the righteousness of the other claims to civil rights and to dignity.

So we have on one hand the claim of teachers as workers to be respected and to have their work valued and respected, and we have the demand, the rightful demand, of communities of color, of African Americans, that schools be used, really, as vehicles for their social mobility and that inequalities be erased.

ELLIOTT: Speaking of teachers unions, in an act of civil disobedience, the head of the AFT, Randi Weingarten, got arrested. Explain to us: is this enough? Is this singular show of solidarity enough? And if not, why?

WEINER: Okay. I want to say that it’s important that Randi Weingarten–it’s very important that union leaders, symbolically–’cause that’s what it is–that they symbolically put the union behind this new movement for social justice on the part of African-American youth. And this is really the new civil rights movement, and it’s extraordinarily important that teachers unions become involved and support youth of color in demanding equality and social justice.

The problem with limiting it to a symbolic act is that there are very considerable forces that are trying to drive a wedge between teachers unions and between civil society, powerful forces that are global, that are arguing that teachers and teachers unions are really a threat to global prosperity and block economic progress. And it’s not going to be enough for a teachers union president to be arrested in civil disobedience or Tweet support or issue a press release to push back on those forces that are trying to turn communities of color against the union.

ELLIOTT: Conservatives like former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani say that the way to end poverty and violence in communities of color is through education. What’s your response to this?

WEINER: I think the first thing we have to be clear about is that it’s not just conservatives, that the idea that we can use education to improve the economy is really bipartisan in this country. And it’s the same point of view that’s being pushed by the World Bank throughout the world. And that’s why Arne Duncan says that education is the true path out of poverty.

Well, it’s not. The true path out of poverty for the world, as well as for poor and working people in this country, is good jobs. There are things that schools can do to give all kids a crack at the diminishing number of good jobs, but schools can’t create jobs. Education can’t do that. But the idea that the entire weight of eliminating poverty falls on schools and falls on teachers is really a myth that we have to debunk.

And I think that the unions have not been willing to say, on the one hand, that we can’t eliminate poverty, but at the same time there are things that we can and we should do differently, and it’s important that we do that, in this country and throughout the world, because that’s the only way, I think, that we’re really going to be able to unite to social movements that should be partners and allies, this new movement for civil rights and equal opportunity, equal educational opportunity, and the movement of teachers for their dignity as workers and their profession.

ELLIOTT: So, speaking of allies, what are some real concrete steps that teachers can take to be real allies to the racial justice movement of the 21st century?

WEINER: Well, I think one of the things that we have to do is we have to have frank, honest discussions in schools with parents and students about what education should look like–what it is and what it should look like. And that’s going to be a hard conversation to have, because this [incompr.] society that has not been willing to really discuss honestly race and racism, or really all of the social prejudices that infect our society and therefore infect education.

So one of the things that we need to do to push back on things like standardized testing is not just say that we don’t want the standardized tests to be used to evaluate teachers. We have to talk to parents and teachers about what they need to trust the schools, what they need to trust teachers, and what they need to feel that teachers and schools are really committed to them as human beings, to their full respect and to their dignity.

And this is not going to happen by union officers, on any level, issuing statements. This is going to happen by a democratization of the union and the democratization of the schools. And it’s really essential that those conversations and those activity begin at the school site.

Another thing that the union should be doing is they should be working with parents and kids against school closings. They should be working with parents and kids to really fight against budget cutbacks that damage the schools. They shouldn’t be supporting politicians that give tax breaks to corporations and then turn around and cut the budget in schools and cut services that kids need and put teachers in a position of fighting against kids and fighting against parents for pensions and for salary at the cost of improvements in the schools. And the unions really have a critical role to play in that, in a local and in cities, and in the state, and in the federal level.

And I’m really talking about the teachers unions becoming themselves a social movement that serve as, that become respectful allies for this new movement that’s burgeoning on the streets now.

ELLIOTT: Right. Well, thank you so much for joining us, Lois. And it’ll be interesting to see in the upcoming weeks and months how this new civil rights movement of the 21st century develops and what role teachers will play in it that.

WEINER: Right.

ELLIOTT: Thank you.

WEINER: Thank you.

ELLIOTT: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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Lois Weiner is a professor of education at New Jersey City University. She brings to her wide-ranging scholarship first-hand experience, as a classroom teacher and union officer. Professor Weiner's is the author of Preparing Teachers for Urban School , which was honored by the American Educational Research Association (AERA) for its contribution to research on teacher education. Her recent scholarship analyzes the global transformation of education and the role of teachers and teachers unions in resisting changes that are making education more unequal, explained in The Future of Our Schools: Teachers Unions and Social Justice (Haymarket Press, 2012).