Why we should all be concerned about the teachers who sported those NYPD shirts.
In the introduction to his 1962 publication The Other America: Poverty in the United States, Michael Harrington notably observed that what the U.S. poor needed most was “an American Dickens”—somebody who, through their writing, could make the poor visible, or better yet real, to those blinded by their own privilege and comfort.
Unfortunately, the same may be true with regard to the issue of common sense and cultural sensitivity for a group of New York teachers who elected to wear NYPD t-shirts on the first day of school as a sign of solidarity with the New York City police, whose questionable practices regarding minority suspects came under scrutiny again this summer with the chokehold death of an unarmed black man named Eric Garner.
Despite being advised by the United Federation of Teachers not to wear the shirts as a matter of maintaining objectivity and out of concern that community members, parents, and students might rightfully misconstrue their support, the group elected to wear the shirts anyway.
The backlash has been swift and understandable. It is not only the incredible insensitivity of the act but the brazen disregard for the notion of both police and teachers as public servants that is irksome. In an age when so much abuse is heaped on both teachers and police, ostensibly for being out of touch with those they serve, the gesture was more than inappropriate it was damaging.
It was unfortunate for another reason. In the aftermath of rioting in Ferguson, Missouri, following the killing of another unarmed Black person, teenager Michael Brown, teachers from around the country responded in a variety of ways, from fund raising, to social media, to reach out to a community in need. In New York, the United Federation of Teachers even backed a march led by Al Sharpton in support of justice for both Garner and Brown that was intended to be a step toward reconciliation. The UFT’s decision to support the march, however, upset some members critical of Sharpton and what they saw as a rush to judgment against police. It was ostensibly this concern that led the teachers at the center of the current controversy to elect to wear NYPD t-shirts as a demonstration of unity and support.
As a strong supporter of teachers, and one who appreciates the important role they play as educators, counselors, and role models to youth, I was not only disappointed but also saddened by the choice of this group.
As a strong supporter of teachers, and one who appreciates the important role they play as educators, counselors, and role models to youth, I was not only disappointed but also saddened by the choice of this group. While by no means indicative of the majority of persons within the profession, their choice does require a response.
In lieu of an “American Dickens,” in a society and culture still highly polarized by race, teachers occupy a unique place as facilitators of thought and discussion. On important social questions, beyond the family, they remain critical first responders. Therefore, their classrooms must remain safe spaces where students are invited to share informed opinions not conditioned by a hard line taken by teachers or of fear of reprisal.
In this sense, the t-shirts worn by those teachers sent the wrong message. They clearly communicated to students where those teachers’ sympathies lay. In the process they likely discouraged any substantive conversation or questions by students, especially to an authority figure clad in pro-police t-shirts and sporting pro-police signs.
More importantly, they signaled to the largely black and brown students in those classes that perhaps these teachers saw them much in the same way that many believe the NYPD and Ferguson police saw Eric Garner and Michael Brown—as problems, not people.
Thankfully, many teachers—both in New York and across the country—took a very different approach, not only by encouraging dialogue, but organizing students and communities to meet the humanitarian needs of those affected—especially in Ferguson.
The teachers who took this approach deserve our applause for opening up the door to frank and honest discussion about police brutality, citizen rights, public safety, and the importance of civic engagement, in one of the safest and most productive spaces to have them, classrooms.
Surely dialogue is not the sole remedy for broaching peace and understanding—but it is a start and it can’t come in the form of so called educators sporting the logo of one of the agencies that young black and brown students see, rightfully or wrongfully, as the enemy.
“Rare, indeed is the Harlem citizen,” James Baldwin wrote provocatively in July of 1960, “from the most circumspect church member to the most shiftless adolescent, who does not have a long tale to tell of police incompetence, injustice, or brutality. I myself have witnessed and endured it more than once.”
Those who teach have a duty to be aware of the legacy and power of this perception and be prepared, when appropriate and necessary, to help contextualize, channel, and hopefully redirect what Baldwin described as the “accumulating contempt and hatred of a people” toward those who “represent the force of the white world.”
By wearing those t-shirts, the teachers in question forfeited this opportunity, becoming yet another manifestation of the force of the white world, instead of partners in healing and placing trust in a city in need of communication and understanding.