Some Fresno Unified parents are outraged over Superintendent Michael Hanson’s email to teachers last week that referenced “black and brown” students.
As part of his weekly superintendent’s message on Friday, Hanson called on teachers to pay extra attention to minority students, who scored lower than their white peers on state test scores. But his language used in the email to describe those students’ race has been called crude and offensive.
“Are your students feeling connected and performing well? Are your black and brown students finding early success?” the email says.
Julianna Portillo, a mother of three students in the district, said the email was out of line, and that someone in Hanson’s position – who is white – should be more careful with their language. Portillo and others took to social media aiming to make Hanson’s email “go viral,” and some called for his resignation over the matter.
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Are your black and brown students finding early success?
Fresno Unified Superintendent Michael Hanson in an email to teachers
“This is 2016. Racial segregation should no longer be promoted anywhere,” Portillo said. “How is this acceptable? How are my ‘brown’ children automatically classified as unable to reach success?”
In a conference call on Monday, Hanson said he was surprised by the reaction to his email, and while he said he will modify his language in the future, he stood by it.
“That language has been used locally and nationwide for a long time in describing two groups of students who have historically been left behind,” Hanson said. “I’ll certainly modify it. It was not my intent to offend anybody. My intent was to draw attention to the fact that we are making kids visible. … If someone needs an apology for it, then I’ll certainly apologize for using a language set that some people misunderstood the intent of.”
Celena Martin, also a Fresno Unified mother, called the email ignorant.
“Does he call Asians yellow?” she said. “Having boys that would fall under the ‘brown’ term, it’s just rude. I believe that all children should be enjoying early educational successes – not focusing on brown or black.”
Hanson blames FTA
Hanson said politics is at the root of the strong reaction to his email. He pointed to ongoing negotiations with the Fresno Teachers Association and said that the union is upset that money has been used for expanding student programs and field trips instead of for teacher salaries. He also pointed to his longtime critic on the school board, Brooke Ashjian, who publicly criticized Hanson’s email.
“We should never classify kids as black, brown and whatever Crayola colors (there) are in the box. They are our students, family and neighbors,” Ashjian posted to Twitter.
Hanson shot back: “This always nests in a political context, and it’s important I think for that to be put on the record. If it makes some people uncomfortable, especially union leadership, I would challenge them to explore more deeply why that is.”
FTA President Tish Rice, who is Latina, said Hanson’s claims about the organization are not true.
“Our educators are the biggest champions of our students – all of our students,” she said. “The superintendent’s remarks show how disconnected he is from the students and families we serve.”
It just paired failure with colors.
Juan Avitia, Fresno Brown Berets
Nearly 70 percent of Fresno Unified students are Latino.
Juan Avitia, a leader of the Fresno Brown Berets – a Latino civil rights group – said Hanson’s email was insensitive.
“It just paired failure with colors, which I think goes without saying,” Avitia said. “It doesn’t surprise me, though. He’s out of touch.”
Former President George H.W. Bush sparked outrage in 1988 when he described his Mexican-American grandchildren as “the little brown ones.” But some say “brown” is not a derogatory term.
Cristina Herrera, chair of the Chicano Studies Department at Fresno State, uses the term “brown” often, but said she understands why some took offense.
“I’m not offended by the use of ‘brown.’ I use that word all the time. What’s most problematic is that he’s positioning black and Latino students as not achieving the same level of success as white students.
“That, for me, is what should be the focus of the critique, rather than whether or not he should be allowed to use those words. There’s always this sort of oppositional standpoint where white students are framed as being the goal – the level at which black and brown students should try to achieve.”
Hanson has focused on the student achievement gap among minority students this year, showing support for the Black Lives Matter movement at Fresno Unified’s convocation event last month.