AS THE AFT CELEBRATES its first 100 years, we honor our proud history as a union that has sounded the alarm and led the fight for economic, social and racial justice. In 1918, just two years after our union was founded, the AFT fought for equal pay for African-American teachers, for the election of African-Americans to local school boards, and for compulsory school attendance for African-American children. The AFT was the only education organization to file an amicus brief in support of the plaintiffs in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case in which the U.S. Supreme Court abolished segregation in schools. We also were among the first trade unions to extend full membership to people of color and to require our segregated affiliates to integrate. This was a just, but unpopular, move that led to the loss of thousands of members in the southern region.
As our union enters its second century, our fight for an America that lives up to its promise of liberty and justice for all is not yet won. Separate but equal is no longer the law of the land, but systemic inequity in education has relegated millions of children of color to under-resourced, struggling schools. Black households have less than one-tenth the wealth of white households, on average, an outrageous reality that continues to get worse. Not since Reconstruction have there been as many attempts to restrict the right to vote. There has been an alarming number of incidents of police-involved violence against black men, women and children. The tragic deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., Eric Garner in New York City, Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Walter Scott in North Charleston, S.C., Sandra Bland in Waller County, Texas, and several other unarmed blacks who have died during or following encounters with the police underscore a broader crisis rooted in centuries of racial inequality in our nation.
Last October, members of the AFT executive council had a blunt, tough, uncomfortable, but important conversation to determine how our union could address the lingering effects of racism and inequality and, in particular, the impact on black males. As a result of that groundbreaking discussion, the council approved a statement of intent, “Closing the Achievement Gap for Black Males,” that details how black men and boys are persistently denied equal access to educational and economic opportunity. Laying the groundwork for our fight forward for justice, the statement also established the AFT’s Racial Equity Task Force.
The primary goal of the task force has been to help determine what role the AFT can play in the fight for racial equity. The task force also has examined ways to engage our entire union—members, leaders and staff at every level—in a conversation on how the AFT can work for transformative changes in our union, our schools and other work sites, our communities and our nation.
The executive council named AFT Secretary-Treasurer Lorretta Johnson to chair the task force. Johnson decided to cast a broad net and open membership to anyone—regardless of rank or position—who wanted to serve.
In January 2015, the AFT launched a series of conversations with leaders and members around the nation on racial inequality. Those discussions—at each of the AFT’s program and policy council meetings, at constituency and committee meetings, and at affiliate conferences—were blunt and passionate, and yielded a diverse group of volunteers to serve on the newly formed task force.
The executive council determined that the work of the task force should focus on developing real, union-driven solutions to address racial justice, particularly what has happened to black males. The decision to narrow the scope of the task force’s work, however, is in no way meant to marginalize or minimize the challenges and struggles of other oppressed groups. Our work in racial equity will strengthen and propel our fight forward to defend the rights of all working Americans, including women, people of color, the disabled, ethnic minorities, immigrants and members of the LGBT community. We are confident the AFT’s efforts to fight inequities for black males will help reclaim our nation’s promises of liberty and justice for all people.
Today, a grass-roots movement—fueled by the growing crisis around racial inequities in our nation—has emerged. A new generation is standing and delivering a fervent demand for racial justice. We must recognize that their fight is our fight and their struggle is our struggle. This movement shows us that it is not enough to be against discrimination. We must act to fundamentally change a society in which black lives have been demeaned. Now is the time to seize this unique moment to reaffirm our union’s commitment to this fight forward.
We sincerely thank the members of the Racial Equity Task Force for the contribution of their time, talent and energy to this important work.
Randi Weingarten, President
Lorretta Johnson, Secretary-Treasurer
Mary Cathryn Ricker, Executive Vice-President