In a very long and thoughtful article on racism today and its relation to Barack Obama, Ta-Nehisi Coates points out that the first Black president has carefully avoided discussion of race, although, naturally, racism is a central factor in everything about the way his presidency has played out. Coates doesn’t blast Obama for this avoidance, but neither does he ignore the consequences. He writes:
“Whatever the political intelligence of this calculus, it has broad and deep consequences. The most obvious result is that it prevents Obama from directly addressing America’s racial history, or saying anything meaningful about present issues tinged by race, such as mass incarceration or the drug war. There have been calls for Obama to take a softer line on state-level legalization of marijuana or even to stand for legalization himself. Indeed, there is no small amount of inconsistency in our black president’s either ignoring or upholding harsh drug laws that every day injure the prospects of young black men—laws that could have ended his own, had he been of another social class and arrested for the marijuana use he openly discusses.”
But there’s another Black president that’s worth watching right now. One that has decided not to avoid racial questions, but to confront them head on: Karen Lewis. She’s the dynamic new president of the Chicago Teachers Union. The CTU is in the fight of its life, against a mayor, Rahm Emmanuel, who is determined to crush them and implement the kind of neoliberal, business-oriented education “reform” that’s sweeping the nation. So in Obama’s home town, in an election year, Obama’s former chief of staff is doing battle with a union president who has decided to draw a line in the sand.
The CTU released a report that’s worth reading, titled “The Schools Chicago’s Students Deserve”. The report notes that, for example, 69% of African American students and 42% of Latino students in Chicago are currently attending segregated schools. The document makes specific anti-racist policy proposals, such as early childhood intervention, nurturing bilingual programs, and focusing on hiring and retaining teachers of color. CTU teachers have voted to give the leadership the authority to call a strike if need be. You can watch Karen Lewis discuss the latest negotiations here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_vV6ZUBEsiY&feature=youtu.be. A balance sheet of this struggle is drawn well by Lee Sustar here. He writes:
“That’s why the CTU’s struggle in Chicago is so important. Four years after the financial crash of 2008, politicians and employers are still using high unemployment and tight budgets to try to permanently cripple organized labor while dismantling what remains of decent social services—and public education is in the crosshairs.”
Don’t expect Obama to step out in front when it comes to challenging racism. But there’s another president who is leading a fight that will make a huge material impact on the lives of students, teachers, and families of color in Chicago, and possibly, in the nation.