Color Me Bad and Good

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For the past few weeks, Susan Edelman over at the New York Post has been covering the firestorm sparked by the N.Y.C. Department of Education’s new anti-bias training program, part of Chancellor Richard Carranza’s scorched-earth, “disrupt and dismantle” policy of tackling white supremacy and bias in the school system. Last Tuesday, June 28, three veteran administrators, all white women, filed a 90-million-dollar lawsuit claiming they were either demoted or passed up for promotion in favor of people of color, mostly black men, who were unqualified — or, in one case, even unlicensed — for the positions they were appointed to. Mayor Bill de Blasio, who appointed Carranza in April of last year, called the women’s claims “ridiculous and outrageous and false.”

As a person who believes systemic changes must be made at the roots — that institutionalized racism, which lives and breathes through our systems of education, banking, justice, and government, must indeed be disrupted and dismantled — I’m not opposed to the intent behind Chancellor Carranza’s pro-diversity employment and promotion policies. But, even as a black Latino man from a poor working-class background, I have never been too keen on affirmative action, which, in trying to undo inequalities in society, would give opportunities to the members of historically oppressed groups over equally qualified, or even more qualified, white candidates. Again, I understand and agree with the aims of such a policy. Had it not been for affirmative action, Sonia Sotomayor may not have got into Princeton, then probably not into Yale Law School, and most certainly not onto the Supreme Court, something the judge herself has admitted. Nor would we have seen the likes of a President Obama either, though there are undoubtedly millions of Americans who count it as evidence that the policy of weighing a candidate’s socioeconomic background along with their other qualifications does more harm than good to the country.

What irks me most, however, are the methods used by Chancellor Carranza and his staff in addressing and eliminating white supremacy and other forms of institutionalized racism in New York City’s public school system. On May 20, Ms. Edelman reported on a mandatory seminar held by the Department of Education, based on a 2001 text by Kenneth Jones and Tema Okun titled Dismantling Racism: A Workbook for Social Change Groups, which appears to malign common human characteristics as stereotypical of “White Supremacy Culture.” A PowerPoint slide published by the Post lists such traits as “perfectionism,” “worship of the written word,” a “sense of urgency,” “paternalism,” “either/or thinking,” a “fear of open conflict,” “individualism,” “objectivity,” and a “right to comfort” as distinctive features of white culture. White employees who so much as quibbled with any of the seminar’s content were deemed “fragile” and “defensive.”

“It’s good work. It’s hard work,” the Post has Carranza saying. “And I would hope that anybody that feels that somehow that process is not beneficial to them, I would very respectfully say they are the ones that need to reflect even harder upon what they believe.”

Matt Gonzales, a school integration consultant on the department’s diversity task force, says the anti-bias program “requires discomfort.” Agreed. Yet, being a black Latino man, surely the seminar’s list of white traits shouldn’t make me feel put out. After all, though I’m no white supremacist, I too value things like individualism, the written word, objectivity, and the pursuit of perfection — and in fact, I know plenty of other blacks and Latinos, both personally and historically, who have valued the same virtues. Was not Muhammad Ali a remarkably individualistic person in pursuit of perfection, both physical and spiritual, and aren’t those supposedly white-supremacist traits what made him not only great but The Greatest? Weren’t both Fidel Castro and his aide-de-camp, Che Guevara, tormented by a sense of urgency, and plagued, at least a little, by a Communist form of either/or thinking? The Castro regime, especially in the later decades, was nothing if not paternalistic as well — as have been plenty of regimes, left and right, across Latin America, Africa, and Asia. And I know plenty of blacks and Latinos in my own life, friends and family members, who are crippled by a fear of open conflict, only rising to anything close to violence in defense of their right to live a life of comfort and complacency.

So I’m pretty discomforted by the suggestion that such virtues and vices are the exclusive domain of white culture. I, as a black Latino man, claim these traits as my own, of my people, of all people. There is nothing that makes white people inherently in the wrong, but if there is, it isn’t the white part, but the people part. Since I’ve already mentioned him, Che once said that “cruel leaders are replaced only to have new leaders turn cruel.” The same goes for oppressors, who are often replaced by the very people they once oppressed. You need only look to Israel, where the Jews who were persecuted by German Nazis in the thirties and forties — and by all nations since time immemorial — are now persecuting Palestinian Arabs and defending their brutal occupation of Palestine with much of the same derogatory, racist arguments once used against Jewry. Thus, it seems it wasn’t the whiteness of the German Nazis that compelled them to commit their atrocities, just as it isn’t the Jewishness of the Israeli government that drives it to drive out the Arabs now — it is only, ironically, painfully, their common humanness.

Rather than train teachers and teach students that whites are generally one way and people of color are generally a different way, Chancellor Carranza and the New York City Department of Education should focus on doing what a good liberal education is supposed to do: revealing and studying the good and evil tendencies inherent in all of humanity.


Featured image: Dr. Martin Luther King, who famously dreamed that one day his children would “not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character” (medium as muse/Flickr)

Hector is the founder and editor of MANO magazine as well as the host of the LATINISH podcast. A Chicagoan living in Las Vegas, he's also the senior editor of Latino Rebels as well as a former managing editor of Gozamos, an art-activism site based in his home town. He was a columnist at RedEye, a Tribune-owned daily geared toward millennials. His work has been mentioned by The New Yorker, Good Morning America, TIME and other outlets, and his writing was featured in Ricanstruction, a comic book anthology whose proceeds went toward recovery efforts in Puerto Rico. He studied history at the University of Illinois-Chicago where his concentration was on ethnic relations in the United States.

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