Shark Blog and Silver Rights have been discussing an incident in Seattle, in which a teacher, Brian Emanuels, chastised a black student for using the word “gay” in a derogatory manner. The controversy comes in because of the way Emanuels decided to demonstrate bad behavior by example:
Brenda Little, deputy general counsel for Seattle Public Schools, said the teacher then walked back into the classroom with the boy, saying to the class, ” ‘Well, I guess the n- – - – - can come back in.’
The NAACP is calling for Emanuels’ firing. Shark Blog disagrees, on the grounds that “Emanuels’ use of the N-word was not meant to harass anybody, but was merely a clumsy attempt to teach a lesson in tolerance.” In other words, Shark Blog is defending Emanuels based on the idea that Emanuels had good intentions.
But I think intentions are irrelevant. Accepting for argument’s sake that Emanuels had the best intentions in the world, the NAACP is still right about this case.
The problem is, how the school system responds to this incident won’t just effect Emanuels; it sets a precedent for how the school acts in the future. What happens when the next teacher disparagingly refers to a black student as a “nigger,” and claims that his intentions were good, too? It’s important – hell, it’s essential – that any teacher who acts as Emanuels did be put through hell and back.
Does it seem unfair that a well-meaning teacher faces punishment, and might even lose his job? Consider this: teachers can – and should – be fired and hired based on many things in addition to their intentions. Let’s continue assuming that Emanuels meant well: What does it say about his competence and judgment as a teacher, that he called a black student “nigger”? I’d say that’s a demonstration of stunning incompetence; and there’s nothing wrong with disciplining incompetent teachers, regardless of their alleged good intentions.
I do agree, of course, that using “gay” in a derogatory way is homophobic, and teachers should speak out against it. So I’ll give Emanuels points for that. But I think it’s possible to teach that lesson without calling black students “nigger”; if Mr. Emanuels does lose his job, perhaps he’ll be replaced by someone who can teach against homophobia more competently.
All that said, I worry that it’s a mistake to focus on cases like this. The big problem of anti-black racism isn’t white teachers calling black students “nigger”; it’s smooth, well-spoken men in expensive suits who would never use the word “nigger” in public, but who pursue policies and ideologies that keep in place a de facto segregation of black and white that puts blacks (on average) in worse schools, worse jobs, worse neighborhoods, and out of positions of wealth and power. And it’s the powerful folks who don’t say “nigger,” but who passionately oppose any policy that might actually create change in that de facto segregation.
In other words, I worry that stories like this make it seem like racism is all about individual racists. Individual racists suck, but I think institutional racism is what’s really doing the most damage. The very fact that our current system is very worried about use of the word “nigger,” but pretty much accepts the racist system that keeps blacks disproportionately poor and out of power, suggests to me that criticizing use of the word “nigger” isn’t much of a threat to the system.