Members of New York City’s Community Education Council District 2 (CEC D2) behaved like the children they are meant to represent in last week’s meeting, when discussions of a joke from a past meeting devolved into screaming, personal attacks, and slanders.
During the council’s June meeting, the group was tackling school integration. Council member Thomas Wrocklage had brought his toddler daughter and a friend’s nephew. The nephew spent much of the meeting climbing on and off Wrocklage’s lap.
This innocent image of a man holding a child was the target of scorn by his fellow council members. Rachel Broshi told Wrocklage, “It hurts people when they see a white man bouncing a brown baby on their lap and they don’t know the context. That is harmful.”
Broshi, and several other council members, argued that the image of a white man holding a black child was inherently racist. When Wrocklage asked Broshi to explain why holding a friend’s nephew was racist merely due to their differing races, Broshi refused, yelling at Wrocklage, “Read a book. Read Ibram Kendi. Read ‘White Fragility.’ Read ‘How to Talk to White People.’”
Wrocklage’s question was never answered. How is it not racist to be offended by the sight of a child being held by someone of a differing race?
It was not just the image of Wrocklage holding his friend’s nephew that caused outrage. During a discussion on ending screening in New York City schools and increasing integration processes, Wrocklage argued that increasing integration efforts were important, and had to begin as early as elementary school, contrary to the popular proposal of beginning in middle school. During his argument, he said, “My living room’s integrated right now,” in reference to the visit from his friend, who happened to be black.
Some on the council took the comment as a joke, and accused Wrocklage of purposefully belittling the problems of segregation and even minimizing slavery. Council member Emily Hellstrom monologued for several minutes, accusing Wrocklage of racism and prescribing malicious intent.
In the aftermath of the meeting, Wrocklage faced an onslaught of allegations of racism on social media. Around 100 parents in District 2 signed a letter to Maud Maron, the president of the school board, complaining about Wrocklage, who claims the letter slanders him with false allegations.
Even Wrocklage’s defense of himself was portrayed in a harmful light. No amount of contextualizing saved him from the accusations of racism. Once the accusation was charged, he was labeled, and it was never going away.
Never mind that his comment was intended to push for increased scholastic integration. It wasn’t important that his laughter was not at the comment, but an involuntary and natural reaction to watching children play. They declared him guilty, and all exculpatory facts were ignored.
A recurring theme throughout the meeting was that, while it was fine to tell someone his actions are racist, the accuser had no responsibility to explain why. Instead, sizable focus was placed on the importance of “doing the work,” as Council Member Shino Tanikawa said, as she called for increased anti-racism training for the council.
She further expressed, “There is no way around it, you have to read. If you’re not willing to read, then you’re not doing the work. This is work we all have to do. You can disagree with people, but this is not an ideological difference. This is how black and indigenous people of color see the world and it’s not for you and me … to deny that reality. We have to get on board.”
This meeting forebodes a dark time for New York public schools. The members of this council could not hold a meeting without devolving into screaming matches and personal attacks. Further, members of the council successfully wielded accusations of racism as a tool to silence political opponents. It’s a very convenient argument when you can tell anyone who disagrees with you that he needs to “do the work” and you have no obligation to discuss in good faith.