The president of the American Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten, is among the signers of an open letter in Harper’s magazine warning that the post-George Floyd racial reckoning, while needed, “has also intensified a new set of moral attitudes and political commitments that tend to weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favor of ideological conformity.”
The letter warns, “The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted.” It also says, “censoriousness is also spreading more widely in our culture: an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty.”
It speaks of “a stifling atmosphere” in which “professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class.” Says the letter, “We need to preserve the possibility of good-faith disagreement without dire professional consequences.”
The list of signers includes some prominent academics, among them David Blight and Anthony Kronman of Yale, Noam Chomsky of MIT; Atul Gawande, Stephen Pinker, Randall Sullivan Jr., Helen Vendler, and Orlando Patterson of Harvard, David Greenberg of Rutgers, Jonathan Haidt of NYU, and Nicholas Lemann and John McWhorter of Columbia.
For Weingarten, who, unlike many of the other signers, does not have tenure and is elected by her union’s members, signing this is a courageous move. As the letter itself implies, suggesting publicly that there is any downside to the post-George Floyd racial reckoning is the sort of thing that can lead to “dire professional consequences.” I’ve got my disagreements with Weingarten over lots of things, but she deserves some credit for going out on a limb on this one.
Weingarten has sometimes been faulted by conservatives for moving the union away from the more unpredictable ideological line it hewed during the tenure of her predecessors Albert Shanker and Sandra Feldman, and for turning the AFT more into a knee-jerk part of the Democratic left, more like the National Education Association, which operates in concert with the AFT at many state and local levels. Vice President Biden took three questions at a July 3 NEA conference, “all centered around racial justice and presidential leadership,” according to a pool report of the event.
The New York City AFT local where Shanker, Feldman, and Weingarten all cut their teeth was at the center of the 1968 racial conflict over “community control” of schools in the Ocean-Hill Brownsville section of Brooklyn. The United Federation of Teachers, AFT’s Local 2, defended 18 white and Jewish teachers that a newly created minority-controlled school district, backed by the Ford Foundation and liberal Republican mayor John Lindsay, wanted to fire. Weingarten’s signature on the Harper’s letter is a welcome signal that Shanker’s independent spirit hasn’t entirely left the AFT.
Ira Stoll is managing editor of Education Next.