Assuming That Facts or Logic Matter: On the BAR Petition Against My Speaking to Teach for America

And now it’s come to this.

I should say, and I quite sincerely mean it, that I have long respected the important analytical and journalistic work done by Bruce Dixon, Margaret Kimberley and everyone associated with Black Agenda Report. I consider BAR among the two or three most valuable left/radical blogs out there, and when asked — as I often am — for good web-based left commentary, BAR is always at the top of the list. And it will continue to be, despite the fact that as of today, BAR began circulating something of an indirect attack on me: a petition in opposition to my upcoming presentation to folks at Teach for America, scheduled for later this month. I should point out, by the way, that the date of that event is actually not the date Bruce mentioned in his editorial on the subject, but I guess insisting on the accuracy of details such as this would be unfair of me, so‚Ķmoving on.

Aside from the inherent absurdity of suggesting that I am now “stamping the anti-racist ghetto passes for TFA” — which is insulting not only to me (big deal) but also the people of color who sought to have me come to this event in the first place — there is the larger problem with the underlying assumptions of Dixon’s editorial comment, which comment I replied to, directly to Bruce, via e-mail, an hour or so after I first saw it.

Several hours passed, and although I hadn’t heard back from Bruce, I began to see lots of folks chiming in, usually in a far more caustic tone than that which Dixon had used, making arguments that Bruce had not actually made, or attacking me in ways he had not. Whereas most of Dixon’s commentary was aimed at TFA, and merely suggesting that I ought not give some kind of anti-racist patina to their operations by agreeing to speak to them — in other words, it was less an attack on me than an entreaty for me not to involve myself with them — others decided to take the opening to bash me personally. And so they suggested I was a “shill for the corporate takeover of education,” which would make no more sense on the basis of one speech to an organization (in which I actually intend to push them and challenge them considerably on these and other matters), than to say that when I spoke to Pfizer a few years ago, I had become a spokesperson for Viagra, or the machinations of Big Pharma, generally.

Anyway, to the extent these other folks decided to chime in, tweet-flaming me and creating oh-so-pithy memes about me and TFA (because hey, that’s movement building and radical and it beats work) — and who, unlike Bruce, have long taken any opportunity to take cheap, cowardly shots at me from a distance, and who unlike Bruce have never seen any role for me (or most any white person really) in the antiracist struggle — it became necessary to reply publicly to the matter.

And so here is what I wrote to Bruce Dixon in reply to the petition and his commentary. As a side note, I should point out that Dixon did reach out to me in the hopes of having a phone conversation, before he wrote anything else on the matter, for which I was greatly appreciative. So far, our time availabilities have not been able to work for making that happen, but we’re still trying. It may be that we can’t connect before he feels the need to respond to my reply, and if so, that’s fine. I trust he will do so, mindful of where I’m coming from and sincerely committed to the dialogue, one way or the other.

For the rest, and especially for those who have opted to make this personal, at least if one is going to attack me, one should have the intellectual integrity to read my reply to Dixon, think seriously about it (as I did the editorial in question) and engage. And not in some bullshit 140-character burst of verbal piss either…Bruce deserved that much. I do too. So does anyone.

(See below for the email to Bruce Dixon of Black Agenda Report)

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Hey Bruce, hope you’re well.

So, about the petition. Please know. I get it. I know full well the issues with TFA, and their model. And to the extent you have long appeared to respect my intelligence, surely you must know that I know. Perhaps not.

That said, it seems to me the logic of this petition rests in a number of untenable assumptions.

1) First, that radicals and/or antiracist educators should not substantively engage with unjust institutions, lest they end up giving them social justice cover for their otherwise iniquitous activities;

2) Second, that TFA is fundamentally more unjust — and perhaps even much more so — than other institutions where I try and bring antiracist messages (and where I assume you don’t mind me doing so, as evidenced by the “someone’s gotta do it” comment regarding my work), and thus, is one place where I should especially refuse to attempt to educate folks; and

3) That if I do go to TFA to try and offer some antiracist perspective to their admissions team — the folks who actually select the “teachers” who will be placed in schools — and some of those teachers as well, that I am somehow guilty of contributing to the racist injury meted out by the TFA model to black and brown children in places like Chicago and elsewhere.

Taking these in order.

As for the first, by this standard, it is simply a truism that radical and/or antiracist educators could not seek to provide insights or educational analysis or trainings of any kind anywhere in this country, except perhaps by talking amongst ourselves, in our little leftist and radical echo chambers, which seems like a fool’s errand to me. As you and I both know, there are no prominent institutions in this society — be they in the corporate world, the K-12 education system (not just TFA and charters but the normal public system as well), higher education, and even most non-profits — who are not in fact engaged in massive injustice, be it racial, class, gendered, etc. If this standard were to be the one that I should operate under (or you, or anyone else), we could not give speeches on college campuses because they are inherently elitist institutions, corporatist in nature, committed to the maintenance of capitalism in almost every case, complicit with empire via the research carried on on their campuses, etc. We could sure as hell never appear in major media because those outlets are owned by defense contractors, or committed to the class system, consumption, heavily implicated in the perpetuation of neo-liberal paradigms of thought with regard to empire, etc. We wouldn’t even be able to really do presentations in normal k-12 schools because the entire educational system, top to bottom, is intrinsically racist and classist to the core. And every institution within that system, from teacher’s unions, to charters bent on destroying those unions, to prominent “reform” organizations, to corporate sponsors of K-12, to most teacher ed schools, to licensing programs (both traditional and non-traditional), to school boards, to private schools, to the ETS, to guidance counseling, to test prep rackets, is implicated in that system.

Is it possible that those institutions, when they bring me in to do a speech or training, may be hoping for antiracist cover, by being able to say “We had Tim Wise, so everything is cool!” Sure Bruce. Of course that is possible. That is possible when I speak at a college, or government agency, or nonprofit board, and sure as hell true for the handful of corporations I’ve presented to.

But is the possible benefit of me going also real? Well, probably not in the maximum sense. I mean, no, no college, company, non profit or other institution is going to fundamentally change because of a speech or training. Of course not. Just like they aren’t going to change because radicals boycott their asses, or blog about them, or write books about them. Or turn their entreaties for training and education down on the basis of principle. But it might make a difference in the following ways:

a. It might end up raising consciousness in the minds of enough individuals within that organization, such that some harm reduction takes place. And let’s not downplay the importance of harm reduction. Giving clean needles to heroin addicts won’t stop addiction but it saves lives, and that matters. To the extent an institution that already exists, and is going to exist whether or not its people get antiracist exposure or training, can be made less destructive (even while in our movement work we may be hoping for it to implode altogether), I feel we should try and make it less destructive. If some of the TFA teachers/staff deepen a consciousness around racism and white supremacy, such that they actually do antiracist pedagogy in the classroom, that actually does matter. I can’t guarantee that will happen of course. But I can guarantee that it will be less likely were I not to go to TFA and make the effort.

b. It might end up convincing people there that “Ya know what, maybe this isn’t for me after all.” This too can be important. Let me explain what I mean. So, my best friend who is a professor of education at Cal State Los Angeles, is charged as part of his job with preparing teachers, and administrators, for work in LAUSD. He takes it as part of his job to be so clear on the importance of antiracism in education — as a teacher or administrator — that anyone not entirely on board for that work, will simply quit the program and never set foot in a classroom or principal’s office. That is another form of harm reduction, right? It isn’t going to make the LAUSD a social justice org. It isn’t going to transform the district, overnight or perhaps at all. But by making it clear that to be a teacher is to be a radical, to challenge the fundamental structures of society and the very institutions that you work for, he draws a line in the sand (as I do whenever I train teachers, no matter what kind of school they are in), which can actually help some of the worst in that field to self-select out of it. That matters, and if that is all my time at TFA does, that might well be worth it.

c. It might well raise the consciousness of folks in TFA, whether they stick with them a while or leave, to pursue this line of thinking in their lives, not only professionally but personally and throughout the community. I know, for instance, that none of my speeches on college campuses have turned any of those campuses into antiracist, socially just spaces. But I also know — because this is the feedback I get back from people who have attended those speeches — that the insights, the information, the analysis, etc. changed their understanding of what was possible, for themselves and for society. And so they were now headed down a different path, professionally and personally, that they were now committed to challenging others and raising these issues in various settings, in ways they wouldn’t have before. So the ripple effects outside of TFA could be significant. Or not. But again, this is possible.

And here’s the thing: sadly, as you know, most folks (well, most white folks and people in positions of authority), are very supportive (and uncritically so) of the TFA model. I’d love for that to change, and I hope you trust that that is true. But if I don’t go to the event in question, we also both know (I assume) that such a boycott, even if there might be valid arguments to support it, will not change anything either. They will continue to do what they do. They will continue to be supported by most for doing it. They will have folks even less exposed to an antiracist message than ever, and all that will be gained is a momentary (and very momentary at that) P.R. kerfuffle, from which they will surely recover quickly. Meanwhile, and here’s the other point here:

I will have abandoned my promise made to people of color in that organization, to come and do what I can. It was people of color, not white leadership, who first extended this invitation. And it has been people of color in the group almost exclusively over the years who have asked me to come and tried to make it happen. Now, perhaps we both would prefer that all people of color just walk away from such a group en masse and in protest. That would make a statement, for damned sure. But we both know that isn’t going to happen. They are there. They are skeptical as hell about the role they are playing. They are trying to do what they can from within, but as you can imagine are having limited success. They are hoping I might be able to do some good. Their hopes might be misplaced. But I feel that as a matter of accountability and out of respect for their own struggles, I owe it to them to try. Just as I feel I owe it to try when training white educators in “regular” teacher training institutions or who got teaching gigs the normal way, without TFA, but are every bit as racist and classist as any TFA recruit, and whose schools and unions are no more truly supportive of them doing antiracist work than TFA has been.

As for premise number 2: Having spoken at hundreds of colleges and high schools, and middle schools, and other institutions, I have to say that I long ago stopped thinking it was possible to objectively rank some as more inherently venal than others. I mean, seriously, I have, for instance, conducted trainings at DEOMI (the Defense Equal Opportunity Management Institute), and at a few other military-related institutions/events. Now as someone who is opposed to the empire and militarism (and tells them so every time I’ve presented), I could as a matter of principle just say “screw you, you’re a bunch of fascists, implicated in the slaughter of millions,” and be done with it. But then again, such a stance, while feeling really good at the moment one takes it, and providing a few self-righteousness points (which of course would then be attacked precisely for being self-righteous), wouldn’t really do much. Have my trainings to those institutions changed the military. No. But have they perhaps changed some of the people who are in it, and who are going to be in it, whether or not I spoke to them? Quite possibly. And from the feedback I have received, the answer is actually yes. That, it seems to me is the job of the educator. To assume that the places where we’ll work are screwed up, and to be committed to trying to change them however possible. By radical change if possible. By increments and fits and starts if not…but I can’t quite understand how it would make any more sense for me to boycott TFA than to boycott the Ford Motor Co (where I’ve given speeches and directly confronted them with the racist history of their company, its namesake, and the town where it’s headquartered), or most colleges given that they contribute at least as much as TFA to the problems and crises of American education.

As for premise 3, I understand the argument: and to some extent it’s true. Any time we participate in unjust systems we contribute to the injustices perpetrated by those systems. But here’s the thing: every day we live in capitalism/white supremacy/patriarchy we are, by definition, contributing to those and other injustices, by consuming, earning money, spending money, eating food farmed, grown or processed under exploitative conditions, driving, wearing most clothes made under those conditions, getting an education, using medicines and thereby contributing to big pharma, sending our own kids to school, flying in an airplane, etc. I am having a hard time understanding how participating in a TFA event, specifically to challenge the way our educational system, including but not limited to TFA, contributes to the race/class marginalization of people of color and working class youth/families/communities, is somehow worse than those other things, about which you do not start petitions, encouraging Tim Wise, or others, to stop engaging. Likewise, by not participating (in this case as an outside educator), I would be doing nothing at all to actually limit whatever injustices TFA might be perpetrating at a given time, as with schools generally, other institutions, etc.

Taking the airplane flying example from above, for instance: I’ve always been amazed at the utter absurdity of people who think that it is an important thing for ecologically conscious people to refuse to fly (because of the fuel use, impact on the environment, etc). Fact is, unless such a boycotting of air travel were going to reasonably include millions of otherwise likely air travelers, making the personal decision not to participate in the eco-injustice that is air travel would be less than meaningless. In fact, it would be self-righteous, self-referential, ascetic bullshit. Because whatever plane the boycotter refused to get on, so as not to be complicit with evil, is still going to take off, with or without their butt in the seat. And in fact, they will have no problem finding someone else to putt their butt in that seat. With TFA, or any school, or corporation to which I might speak, the same is true: they are taking off, so to speak, with or without me. And they will find someone to give that speech that day. They aren’t going to leave the agenda with a 3 hour hole in it. Someone is giving a talk, and someone will likely be giving it about the issues I was asked to engage. The question is, is that person likely to come as clearly as I will, and as challenging as I will? Well, perhaps they would. I don’t claim to be the hardest fucker out there, or the most radical or militant. But I think you know I don’t pull punches either. And I assume you can reasonably estimate that if they were bringing someone else in, it wouldn’t likely be anyone more direct than me. I mean, if anything, they’d probably go softer, but for the efforts by the people of color in the group to force the issue.

So even though my involvement with them, even for the 2 days or whatever it is, could be seen as giving them cover, or using me for that purpose, or even me contributing to them and their agenda, I think it can also be the case that 1) I’m smart enough to ensure I do this on my terms, in my way, without compromise (i.e., I’m not so weak as to be played easily), 2) There are people there, whether I come or not, who need to hear this message, and who can benefit from it; 3) some short term harm reduction might actually come from it, even as we continue in our larger work to try and move the American educational system in a different direction — one in which the existing TFA model and that whole concept goes the way of the dinosaur, and 4) Telling the truth, even to people who don’t want to hear it (maybe especially them) has inherent value, and should be done whenever the opportunity presents itself.

In any event, I do appreciate your concerns in the matter, and greatly respect them, and you, and all the work you all do at BAR, as you know. I know this whole thing wasn’t personal, and I don’t take it as such. I just thought you should know where my head is in all this. And ya know, in the end, you might be right and I might be totally off base. But I feel an obligation to do my best to bring this message to the folks there, and hope you can understand and respect my efforts, as I respect yours in challenging them.

Take care

Tim

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