I woke up this morning to two stories dominating my news feed. First, the sudden death of the beloved Black congressman and justice fighter from Baltimore, Elijah Cummings. Second, enthusiastic support for the Chicago Teachers Union strike. I saw the face of their campaign, Stacy Davis Gates, fiercely handling the media and countering Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot.
To many of y’all, these two stories are separate. But, to me and to other Black advocates, both stories are reminders of the unspoken price paid by Black folks who choose to fight for justice and against racism.
Black people who choose to actively and publicly fight racism, racists, and racist systems and institutions, do the work knowing that this fight kills Black advocates. It can happen in the most obvious ways–like the assassinations of Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., or it can happen more subtly. It can happen when immune systems are changed by exposure to racism. It can happen when Black people engage in John Henryism–pushing so hard in the fight that it raises their blood pressure.
Whatever the mechanism, the experience of racism in America is killing Black people. And fighting it can take an even heavier toll.
If you want to be an ally, you do some of the soul-wrenching, draining, and dangerous work of fighting against racism in America yourself.
Black People Are Working to Death
Rep. Cummings was a giant in the fight to impeach Trump and fight for civil rights. This work no doubt took a toll on his health. His wife said he was fighting to impeach to Trump on his deathbed.
I remember when former CTU president Karen Lewis signaled she planned to fight for teachers and schools by running against Rahm Emanuel for mayor, only to have her plans upended by a cancer diagnosis. For the next four years, she continued fighting for Chicago’s children and working people as the union’s leader, while fighting for her life, until her retirement last year.
I can’t help but feel angry that the price to fight racism is so much higher for Black folks than White liberals. I am also furious that the price is rarely publicly acknowledged, nor is there a strategy to make this easier for Black folks.
I Support CTU, But I Support Black Folks More
I wish I could be energized and excited when I see Stacey Davis Gates fighting for justice, winning, and speaking truth to power for CTU. But instead, I feel fear. I remember what doing this work did to Karen Lewis.
I wish I could be proud of the work of Mayor Lori Lightfoot as she fights against the systems of oppression in Chicago. But instead, I feel fear. I remember what doing this work did to Harold Washington.
I pray that God is covering Stacy Davis Gates and that she is able to stay healthy, strong, and thrive, instead of being another Black woman giving herself, physically and mentally, to the struggle against racism that cares so little for Black women. I support CTU, but I support Black folks more.
I know that Black students who support teachers and want better schools are still more likely to attend failing schools. They have less access to Chicago’s selective enrollment schools. They are more likely to face harsh discipline than the White students who also support teachers.
I know that the Black teachers who are striking are less likely to have money saved and less likely to have childcare. They deal with racism against them in their schools just as much as the Black students they fight for.
I know that the Black parents who support teachers and want CTU to win a groundbreaking contract are likely to have less money and fewer childcare options for their kids than the white parents who share their views. Those Black parents are more likely to have jobs that won’t allow them time off and less likely to have flexible schedules to adjust to the change in their children’s day caused by the strike.
White Allies, You Need to Fight for Justice As Hard As We Do
Black folks need white liberals to fight as hard for us, in all the justice fights: breaking the school to prison pipeline, understanding implicit bias, pushing back on school closings, ensuring all families can choose great schools, and all other ways we fight against racism.
It is a sad obligation placed on Black folks to do so much work for those who care so little about us.
White liberals who support CTU, I urge you to do everything you can to make the lives of Black folks affected by this strike, especially the Black leaders guiding the work, easier.
That starts with acknowledging the “real price” to be the face of a city-wide strike and fight for justice and racial equity in schools. That price is not the same for White and Black CTU supporters.
I ask God to please cover and protect Stacy Davis Gates. I know what the work of fighting for justice does to Black folks.