When technology exposes institutional racism

By Dr. Alan Singer

Zoom and other online video conferencing applications are exposing the underlying racism that infects American society, including in its schools. A Jersey City high school science teacher was recently suspended after students videoed racist rants in which he insulted African-American students in his class who defended the Black Lives Matter movement.

A teacher in Palmdale, Calif. got into trouble when she thought a Zoom meeting with a parent was over and launched into a racist rant accusing Black people of always lying. She was suspended and then resigned. A Georgetown University professor resigned and another was fired after they were caught on a video disparaging Black students. The entire Board of Education of a school district in Oakley, Calif. resigned after a board meeting at which they cursed when describing parents. Two-thirds of the children in this district are Latino.

A white police officer in Albany, N.Y. either forgot to turn off his body camera or accidentally activated it before launching into an anti-Black racist rant. He was suspended without pay and his department has started procedure to terminate him.

The Albany police department is also accused of systematic racism. Between July 9, 2019 and July 9, 2020, 97 percent of the people ticketed or arrested in the jurisdiction for marijuana-related offenses were Black.

The police chief and a patrolman in Hamilton, Ga. were removed after body camera footage showed them making racist comments about slavery and the mayor of Atlanta, who is a Black woman. They made the comments just before going on patrol at a Black Lives matter rally. An assistant to the local mayor commented, “I’m not sure if he was stupid enough — obviously he was stupid enough — not to know it was still working and that he still had it on. The words just rolled out of their mouths. There was no hesitation.”

Neither racism nor tech trouble are new during the pandemic; as with police misbehavior, educator misbehavior is just becoming easier to expose. In 2018, a Florida teacher was videoed telling a student from Haiti that she was from a “third world, island country where they don’t have doors.” In 2019, a photograph of four teachers and an elementary school principal from Palmdale, Calif. was posted on social media showing them laughing while holding up a noose.

Teachers and police officers are entitled to due process, but on-the-job racist rants must be grounds for immediate dismissal, with no second chances. This is not a freedom of speech issue, but an issue of disqualifying behavior. Racists cannot be police officers or teachers.

There are more than 3.5 million kindergarten to 12th-grade teachers and 800,000 police officers in the United States. These videoed incidents represent a minuscule number of teachers and police officers. The greater problems are school boards and state legislatures that seek to whitewash American history by removing or minimizing the role racism in the past and present shapes this country and police departments that target African-Americans. Conservatives disparage “cancel culture,” but they are the ones that want to ban teaching the underside of American history and protect misbehaving police officers.

Dr. Alan Singer is a professor of teaching, learning and technology and the director of social studies education programs at Hofstra University. He is a former New York City high school social studies teacher and editor of Social Science Docket, a joint publication of the New York and New Jersey Councils for the Social Studies.

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