by Marian Swerdlow
The Chief’s excellent coverage of the case of Principal Minerva Zanca (“DOE Ripped for Backing Principal Accused of Blatant Racial Bias,” 1/31/2020, et. al.) draws back the curtain on a situation unique only insofar as it came to public attention, thanks to Zanca’s explicit and open prejudices, and her sharing her revolting racism with someone unusual: an Assistant Principal whose conscience was stronger than careerism.
In my experience, discrimination by administrators and supervisors, mainly white, against black Teachers is common. The Brooklyn High School in which I taught is an example. It had four Principals, and each department had at least three successive Assistant Principals of Supervision (department chairs) during the time I was there, 1990-2016. Yet the statistics based on school yearbooks, and my experiences as union delegate and chapter leader, reveal an institutional policy of discrimination against, and even persecution of, black Teachers.
The Math Department had the worst record. Through four APs, in a department that had 18 to 30 Teachers, there was never more than one black Teacher. None stayed more than one year. A Teacher still in the department told me recently it has no black Teachers.
The record in English as a New Language/World Languages (ENL/WL) was almost as poor, and marked by the periodic persecution of black Teachers. The department had 22 to 36 Teachers. Only during 2002-3 did it have more than 3 black Teachers. In 2012-13, there were only two black Teachers, tenured veterans with no past discipline or unsatisfactory ratings. A new Department AP targeted both, giving them low ratings, denigrating their teaching, and encouraging student complaints against them. The AP asked one, “Do you want to be taken out of the school in handcuffs?” He retired. Fortunately, the chapter leadership fought hard for the other Teacher, finally organizing a school color day with the theme, “Develop, Don’t Destroy, Teachers.” As a result, the Principal stepped in, and the persecution was stopped.
The Social Studies Department has ranged from 22 to 29 Teachers. From 2001 to 2015, it had the same three black Teachers. Whenever any other was hired, the AP managed to quickly get rid of them, usually by excessing, or making them feel so unwelcome, they left. The Science Department had 16 to 29 Teachers. Usually, there were three or four black Teachers, some of whom were treated brutally. Among the many who left, some said they were made to feel uncomfortable and unwanted. From 2015 to today, of the five tenured teachers the school has attempted to terminate, two of them were black Science Teachers.
Special Education (ISS) has ranged from 19 to 34 Teachers. There have been only two years in which it has had more than three black Teachers.The Physical Ed/Health Department after 2000 and the English Literary Arts (ELA) Department after 2003 have had the best overall records, averaging about one-third black Teachers.
Although no Supervisor or Administrator made overtly racist comments that came to public attention, these numbers show a clear pattern of institutionalized racist discrimination against black Teachers. This problem pervades the NYC school system, especially in schools where the students are not majority black. It undermines racial equity in NYC education.