Teachers’ Unions: “Systemically Racist,” Ignored by the Woke

If the woke narrative of “systemic racism” isn’t the path to racial equality, what is? Black conservatives argue for black self-help and, to me, they make a convincing, but incomplete, case. Self-help is a necessary but insufficient condition for reducing the widespread racial disparities that persist.


Last time, I looked at education and found that black children, including those in the lowest echelons of family income, are perfectly capable of equaling their white peers. We know that because, in many charter schools, or armed with school vouchers, that’s what they do. Given the opportunity to escape the dysfunctional schools that burden many black neighborhoods and faced with teachers who make clear and non-negotiable demands on them in learning and individual behavior, those kids tend to rise to the bait.


But of course there aren’t nearly enough charter schools and vouchers to go around. That’s due in large part to the dogged efforts of powerful teachers’ unions that oppose every effort to provide children freedom of choice about who teaches them, how and what. Year after year, state legislatures have the opportunity to expand their voucher and charter school systems and, year after year, teachers’ unions show up with their armies of paid lobbyists and oceans of money in opposition. All unions exist to represent their members, i.e., employees, and teachers’ unions are no exception. It’s the classic labor vs. management faceoff; teachers’ unions’ first allegiance is to teachers, not kids, and it shows.


In WSJ reporter Jason Riley’s words, teachers’ unions,


“fight to keep open the most violent and poorest-performing schools; block efforts to send the best teachers to the neediest students; insist that teachers be laid off based on seniority instead of performance; oppose teacher evaluation systems and merit pay structures that could ferret out bad teachers; back tenure rules that offer instructors lifetime sinecures after only a few years on the job; and make it nearly impossible to fire the system’s worst actors, from teachers who are chronically absent or incompetent to those who have criminal records.”


To the unions, children are an afterthought, if that. Most teachers of course care very much about the kids in their classes, but the unions are a different matter. And it’s the unions, not the teachers, that annually troop to state capitals to oppose the very thing that would best help poor black children in their quest for a decent education – freedom of choice. The very idea of competition, particularly competition that routinely outperforms them, is a bête noire for the unions that must be fought at every turn and defeated. The result in state houses is, at best, incremental progress.


So yes, black children can do the work in schools, but they have to be relieved of the burden of lousy schools and lousy teachers and no amount of individual initiative on the part of black parents or their children will magically accomplish that. If whites truly want to help blacks in education, they’ll reduce the power of teachers’ unions and increase educational choices for all kids.


And of course education, or the lack thereof, has an enormous impact on one of those other important racial disparities - employment/earnings/savings/home ownership/retirement/etc. On one hand, for example, about 500,000 black students drop out of high school every year. Most of them will be unemployed by their mid-30s and 60% of the males will spend time incarcerated. According to Cal Berkeley public policy professor, David Kirp, among black males between the ages of 16 and 24 and not enrolled in school, fewer than half have jobs and one-third are in prison or on probation or parole.


On the flip side, young black men who score above the 50th percentile on standardized tests earn 96% of their white peers’ earnings. And, when black and white students who scored the same on those tests are compared, the blacks are more likely to complete college than are the whites.


In short, education matters, a fact that’s news to precisely no one. We need to allow black kids a better chance at good schooling. Little meaningful will change without our doing so.


Meanwhile, should we call teachers’ unions racist? If we accept the woke definition, we should. After all, unions generally have a robust racist history. The very idea of a minimum wage was generated by white unions in the 1930s to prevent the black workers that were streaming into northern cities from southern states from underselling their white competition. Black labor worked cheaper than did its white counterpart, so the idea was to make their doing so illegal. And it worked, albeit not as rapidly as perhaps the unions desired. Between 1948 and the early 60s, unemployment among black teenagers doubled.


That history of racism by labor unions plus the disparate impact on black kids of teachers’ unions’ opposition to school choice add up to the very definition of “systemic racism,” according to the woke narrative.


So where’s the woke outrage at teachers’ unions? Nowhere to be found. It’s almost as if the fact that those unions and their money being prime movers in Democratic Party politics renders them immune to criticism. But that couldn’t be true. Could it?


Meanwhile, the rest of us care little about labels, whether racist or not. Teachers’ unions are just doing what unions do – protecting their members - and school children aren’t their members. What we should care about is providing all children with sufficient freedom of educational choice to allow them to be the best students they can be. More than almost anything, doing so will shrink existing gaps between blacks and whites.

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