Stakeholders on all sides of the Chicago teachers’ strike trumpeted the phrase “civil rights” so much that it became hard to see who’s fighting for what. Beyond the strike, how many times do you hear advocates start a petition with, “The civil rights issue of the 21stcentury is [insert concern here]?"
It’s downright trendy to root for civil rights. But since we apparently solved for racism, what exactly is the most pivotal injustice that keeps citizens from realizing their full potential?
Chicago’s teachers’ strike brought multiple challenging oppressions to the ring of public opinion. Ostensibly, the fight between Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the Chicago Public School Board and the Chicago Teachers’ Union hinges on issues of job security. Many school boards and mayoral-controlled districts want to implement new teacher evaluation systems that give administrations indications of quality and grounds for dismissals.
Reform advocates proclaim the fight is about the rights of a child to a quality education. Teachers shout the strike is about worker rights and professionalism. In the fray, combatants are waving their respective civil rights flag to legitimate their claim.
The irony in the war of words is that education and labor justice are both legitimate civil rights issues. The Chicago teachers’ strike reveals how disconnected supposed civil rights advocates have become. Justice leaders in education have been outwardly segregating adults from children; performance from quality, and education from worker rights.
As the principal actors of the Chicago drama battled over whose civil rights were being violated the most, other inequities emerged.
Officials had to open schools despite the lack of instruction simply to ensure that children had at least two nutritious meals a day. Who’s out there waving the flag of food security as the civil rights issue of our time? Parents need free meals for their children because wages have not kept pace with the rise of inflation. Income inequality is worthy of a flag.
Also, let’s remember that most teachers on the picket lines are women. The strike stripped away the façade that employers are providing suitable childcare services and family-friendly work environments. Are these not women’s rights issues?
Many advocates have justifiable demands for civil rights. Teachers are fighting for job security in the most insecure employment period in recent times. School boards demand heightened teacher quality, because without it a person can’t think of living a middle class lifestyle. However, one can easily argue that food, healthcare, childcare, income and flexible work environments are equally important.
Let’s end the dramatic “most important civil rights issue” rhetoric. Martin Luther King, Jr. fought for school reform, and would do so now if he were alive. He also died supporting a strike of African American sanitation workers. Too many people stand in the intersections of poverty, joblessness, food insecurity, sexual discrimination and, yes, racism, for us to needle each other about which issue is most important.
Wonder Woman shouldn’t be fighting Superman. However, infighting at the “Justice League” is a sign of how fractured a society we’ve become.
Andre Perry, Ph.D. (twitter: @andreperrynola) is Associate Director for Educational Initiatives for Loyola University New Orleans and author of The Garden Path: The Miseducation of a City.