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Alan Brown: Of schoolteachers and thugs

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When I first began my teaching career, one question I never imagined myself asking was “Are public schoolteachers thugs?”

Rep. Mark Brody, a Union County Republican in the North Carolina House, seems to think so.

Recently, he used social media to characterize North Carolina educators who planned to march in Raleigh on May 16 to advocate for improved working conditions as “Teacher Union thugs who — want to control the education process.” Brody went on to thank those teachers who “stand up to the bullies and self serving thugs of the Teachers Union and believe in showing up for work.”

Brody’s comments are problematic and inexcusable.

I should acknowledge that I have never been called a thug as far as I know. In popular culture, the word is generally not reserved for middle-aged white men. Too often, it is spoken slanderously by adults and directed toward adolescents and young adults of color. However, as a former high school English teacher and current university professor who coordinates a middle school literacy program, I know a number of my students have been targets of the word. For them, being called a thug is often an insult reserved for commenting on the clothes they wear, the music they like, and, most notably, the color of their skin.

I am cautious of appropriating the word thug, as I have seen some teachers do in response to Brody’s comments, as it has come to symbolize an important and sometimes controversial aspect of hip-hop culture, particularly in African-American communities. However, given Brody’s recent comments, I do believe teachers would be remiss if they did not examine his remarks in both a historical and cultural context, because they have the potential to raise important questions: Why would a person who supposedly reveres teachers use a historically derogatory term to describe them. And are North Carolina teachers and students the real victims of some sort of legislative thuggery?

During the 2015 Baltimore protests sparked by the arrest and death of Freddie Gray, Megan Garber penned an article for The Atlantic in which she traced the origins of the word thug to India in the 1350s to mean “deceiver, thief or swindler.” In the 19th century, the word was commonly associated with robber gangs filled with criminals and assassins.

The word thug eventually emerged in American hip-hop culture of the early 1990s. In a 2015 interview, Michael Jeffries, author of “Thug Life: Race, Gender, and the Meaning of Hip-Hop, described the phrase “thug life” as commonly attached “to black and brown people, impoverished people, living in urban communities, regardless of behavior.” Angie Thomas, author of the recently released young-adult novel “The Hate U Give,” has used her book to demonstrate to adolescents and adults how the hate society gives its youth has a way of affecting everyone, but especially children forced to grow up in poverty and live in the shadow of gangs, violence, bullying, police brutality and criminalization.

When Mark Brody uses the word thug to criticize teachers for joining together to advocate for public education, he does so to portray them as criminals who are stealing education from North Carolina’s children. In fact, they are advocating for greater resources and more support to benefit all students. Other national Republican leaders, including former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, also have used the word thug to attack teachers in recent years.

In North Carolina, Republican leaders have long treated the North Carolina Association of Educators (NCAE) — an organization that is not a teachers’ union but does strive to unite and empower teachers to advocate for public education — as adversaries because they believe NCAE seeks to bolster the Democratic Party. As a result, Republicans, including Brody and Senate leader Phil Berger, have often treated and marketed NCAE members as thugs — deceivers, thieves and swindlers — to further their own political agendas.

Brody’s tirade suggests that the civically engaged teachers who took to the streets of Raleigh on May 16 for their day of advocacy were not interested in providing quality education for students, are not role models in their communities and are bullying state policymakers.

Brody later backtracked on these comments and told The News & Observer of Raleigh that he was referring to the National Education Association, not individual teachers, as “teacher union thugs.” Yet, it is important to note that he opened his rant by lambasting the “Union County teachers” specifically for choosing “to inconvenience near 30,000 parents in order to pressure the General Assembly.”

While Brody’s reference to thugs has certainly struck a nerve in North Carolina teachers, it has also become a rallying cry for unity among them, and for good reason. In their 2015 article on the artistic productions of thug life and hip-hop, Carolyn Brooks and her co-authors observed that, while the word thug may have negative connotations, those familiar with hip-hop culture also view it as “a celebration of self-determination and self-definition ... .Thug Life is resilience.”

In a similar vein, rapper Tupac Shakur once defined thug as follows: “By ‘thug’, I mean, not criminal, someone that beats you. I mean, the underdog. The person that had nothing and succeeds is a thug because he overcame all obstacles. …To me, thug is my pride, not being someone that goes against the law, not being someone that takes, but being someone that has nothing, and even though I have nothing and no home to go to, my head is up high. My chest is out. I walk tall. I talk loud. I’m being strong.”

When teachers hear spiteful rhetoric coming from state lawmakers, they may want to consider Tupac’s description of thug life as they advocate with their heads up, chests out, walking tall, talking loudly and being strong. As I reflect on the May 16 March for Students and Rally for Respect, I remember seeing thousands of teachers who would have rather been teaching their students. Instead, they sacrificed their time and money to show up on the streets of Raleigh, chanting for justice and protesting the countless barriers blocking educational opportunities in public schools. Each day these teachers bear witness to the detrimental effects of insufficient per-pupil spending, limited support personnel and crumbling buildings. Their actions demonstrated that our state’s teachers will not be delegitimized by politicians who seek to belittle educators for organizing to overcome the very obstacles placed in front of them by those same lawmakers.

I do believe it is important that teachers who use the word thug to protest Brody’s comments do so responsibly and with a clear understanding of its historical and cultural context. That said, if thug life is resilience, I cannot think of a more resilient group in the face of adversity than North Carolina’s teachers. I stand with them in solidarity and hope, for the sake of our students, that Brody and his fellow lawmakers soon will do the same.

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