Below is an edited version of a speech made made by Randi Wingarten, at the American Federation of Teacher’s Civil, Human and Women’s Rights Conference in New Orleans. The full version can be read at <medium.com/@rweingarten/silence-is-akin-to-consent-c239c80b9069>.
We like to believe that, at forks in the road, we people of conscience will always opt for the righteous path, the moral road, the just route.
And largely in our union’s history we have. We have fought against discrimination and the effects of past discrimination, starting with the right to vote. Likewise, we champion a fair and compassionate immigration system, and fight against the xenophobia spread by people from Father Coughlin to Donald Trump. We demand LGBTQ rights, in courtrooms and in classrooms. We fight for equity in schools (for federal funding like Title I, Perkins and IDEA) to help level the playing field for kids who have been denied the education they deserve. We’ve taken the lead on strengthening teacher quality, including finding ways to reform due process so that great teaching is the norm in every public school in the land.
We have made progress. And we have made progress working with each other, finding common ground, not letting past divisions stop us—the community groups in this room and our unions.
But there are Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Rekia Boyd, Walter Scott. Their memories tell us we haven’t made enough progress.
You know, America generally has been better for certain groups. Able-bodied people, White males, straight people, and non-Catholic White Christians have always enjoyed certain privileges because of power, majority status or any number of reasons.
The same goes for White people in general. And that has been reinforced for centuries, compounded by hundreds of years of slavery. And as Rev. William Barber has so eloquently preached (drawing the line from Reconstruction to Jim Crow to the de facto discrimination created by housing patterns, lack of transportation, inequitable education, poverty, and income and wealth inequality) these patterns persist today, even after the passage of all of our civil rights laws.
We must do more than say that we marched in the 1963 March on Washington, or that we helped fight for civil rights laws or that we fund causes. It’s not enough to be against discrimination, to carry the card of the ACLU or the NAACP.
That’s what Black Lives Matter teaches us. I quote: “Demonstrators who chant the phrase are making the same declaration that voting rights and civil rights activist made a half century ago. They are not asserting that Black lives are more precious than White lives. They are underlining an indisputable fact that the lives of Black citizens in the country historically have not mattered and have been discounted and devalued.” That was from the New York Times editorial page, but that is what Black Lives Matter teaches me. We must do more.
And as uncomfortable as this history is (and in many ways, our complicity with it) our charge is to help change it, to act, as the focus of this conference reminds us, to advance racial justice.
This is our fight: all of us. Please, imagine what it means to be followed in stores by security personnel or suspicious clerks. Imagine insinuations that you got into college or got a job through affirmative action, not achievement. Imagine that you got thrown into jail because you didn’t use a turn signal. Imagine being suffocated by police officers for selling cigarettes, illegally or otherwise. That’s racism. That is bias. That is reality for a lot of Black and Brown people in America.
White Americans can go a long time without ever thinking about the color of their skin. Black and Brown Americans have no choice but to confront issues of race every day.
We can change laws. We can change policies. But there is another frontier we must get to. We must change hearts and minds.
There is a saying from the Talmud: “Silence is akin to consent.” The tragic culmination of so much violence against our brothers and sisters of color and against trans people has shocked and horrified us deeply. We cannot be silent. We must act, and act not just in our own comfort zone, on the fights for economic and educational justice, but on fights for enduring racial justice as if our lives depend on it. We must not just change laws. We must fight to make Black lives matter at the bargaining table, and at the kitchen table—to make Black lives matter in every classroom, on every street and in every court in America. This is the moment to push for a transformation in our country. This is the moment to start to transform ourselves, to transform our communities and to transform our world.
(Randi Weingarten is an American labor leader, attorney, and educator. She is president of the American Federation of Teachers and a member of the AFL-CIO. She is the former president of the United Federation of Teachers.)