Reading, Writing and Racism: NYC School Principal Allegedly Discriminated Against Black Teachers

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While watching the local news in New York, I ran across a small story which has wider implications for all of us. It concerns a special high school in New York City, designed to educate Spanish-speaking immigrants, which is a cause I support. Unfortunately, rather than making news because of a focus on its education program, the school has made local headlines because its new principal, has been charged with making racist remarks about the only African American teachers at the school, John Flanagan and Heather Hightower, who have been terminated. Lisa-Erika James, the only other black teacher, was no longer at the school because the theater program she taught was eliminated.  

The assistant principal, who is white, is one of the people backing up those charges against the principal Minerva Zanca, since he has submitted an affidavit detailing statements made by the principal to him when the black teachers were not present.

A broad coalition of community people has come together — black, latino, asian and white — to protest the situation at the school. They are demanding an investigation into the teachers' dismissal and the firing of the principal. A Facebook page was set up to help organize the protest.

Here's a link to the news video coverage, and a piece of the story:

NEW YORK (WABC) -- It is a high school created for the children of immigrants; many students speak only Spanish when they arrive. The educators here, who spoke exclusively to Eyewitness News, say it requires a principal who is comfortable with racial diversity, but they say that is not the kind of principal they have now.

At the building that includes Pan American International High School in Queens, John Flanagan says he knew he was not his principal's favorite teacher.

"She had something against me, personally," he said.

The principal is Minerva Zanca, who took over the school last year. Educators call her intimidating, but they did not expect what they say they learned about Ms. Zanca after a teacher evaluation meeting in her office, where she had harsh criticism for John Flanagan.

Assistant principal Anthony Riccardo who was also at the meeting, recalled a statement she made about Flanagan.

"When he left the room, she turned to me and said, 'Did you see his big lips quiver?"

Mr. Riccardo wrote that account in an affidavit.

He also reported:

During a conversation in December, following an observation of Hightower, Riccardo stated that Zanca said the teacher "looked like a gorilla in a sweater." Another time, he said the principal referred to Hightower's hair as "nappy" and said, "I could never have hair like that."

I am very familiar with the neighborhood in Queens, where I have lived in the past, but knew nothing about the school, which I found listed in the InsideSchools Guide:

Students at Pan American International High School all speak Spanish and have been in the United States for less than four years. They come from Ecuador, Honduras, Mexico, Columbia and other countries. The principal, the secretaries and the counselors speak Spanish, but most of the teachers speak only English. The goal is to help students learn English, finish high school and prepare for college. Pan American is part of a successful network of high schools designed for new immigrants.

New arrivals take classes with students who have been in the United States a while. Ninth and 10th graders take class together, as so do 11th and 12th graders, so students can help each other. In an art class we visited, an older boy helped a younger boy talk about a painting by Pablo Picasso. The first boy said a word in English and the other boy repeated the word. Students were focused and attentive in the classes we visited. Older students do not usually bully new students because so many of them know what it is like to come to a new country. Teachers give all instruction in English and students must present samples of their work in English twice a year.

A news article, covering this controversy mentioned recent ratings for the school.  

The Pan American school opened just a few years ago and got a D rating on its past two report cards from the city. It serves new immigrant students who are not yet fluent in English, nearly all of whom are Hispanic. Teachers union chapter chair Peter Lamphere said the teachers who filed the complaints are the only black educators in the school.

Queens City Council member Julissa Ferreras sent a letter to Chancellor Dennis Walcott urging an investigation, and a petition was circulating last month urging Walcott to terminate Zanca.

Riccardo said he is currently fighting for his job because the principal tried to remove him this spring, after he gave Hightower a satisfactory rating. He said a third teacher, Lisa-Erika James, lost her position when the principal decided to shut down the theater program she ran. James is also black and has also filed a complaint.

The D.O.E. has a strict anti-discriminatory policy that protects employees from discrimination based on race, color, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation.

Why do I think this has broader implications? First, because it is an example of a white male taking an open anti-racist stance. Bigoted remarks made to him "privately" by the principal were not ignored, or excused. Second, because as activists we have to address bigotry in all its forms, and in a society that openly supports racist  and xenophobic positions from the majority on the Supreme Court, to a chunk of Congress — which is also a society whose demographics are changing rapidly — we need to squarely face the complex issues we will are challenged with in building strong multi-cultural coalitions.

I have a long history fighting against systemic racism and bigotry — not only the built-in racism in our society, but the racist attitudes between and among people of color.

When I was member of the Young Lords Party, a chunk of our community education efforts were focused on racism in the Puerto Rican community, a population that has African, Taino native and European Hispanic roots. I spend half of my time as an educator these days confronting Caribbean bigotries — Dominican's versus Haitians, and the "Spanish" Caribbean versus the "black' English speaking sector.  

I deal also with the complex socio-economic issues of anti-immigrant attitudes in the black American community towards black (African and Caribbean) and Asian immigrants, as well confronting the racialized attitudes immigrants bring with them, or learn very quickly when they get here.

I am able to, by virtue of an accident of birth and growing up, have a foot in three racial/ethnic communities, where I am often the recipient of bigoted asides from those who are unaware of my status as a black female, who is bi-lingual, partially raised by a white grandmother, who went to a Hebrew school, is married to a Puerto Rican, and who has Korean-American and Filipino relatives.

I had a choice to make early in life, and a challenge issued to me by my parents. I could remain silent, or I could fight back. I chose to fight by building bridges between and among communities.

This is a challenge we should all embrace, if we are serious about changing the world around us.


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