New York City educators fired for not performing the Black power 'Wakanda Forever' salute

The New York City Department of Education is involved in a controversy about the Wakanda salute.  It draws attention to the character of the people running that department.

Unfortunately, it is necessary to explain that what is to follow is not satire.  It is a recording of actual events reported in the "mainstream" media.  It concerns two New York City school superintendents who claim they were fired for not giving the "Wakanda" salute.  The "Wakanda" crossed arm salute originated from the comic book–inspired movie Black Panther.  In the 2018 movie, the cross-arm motion represented Black empowerment.

Karen Ames is suing the New York Department of Education for $150 million because she claims she was fired for age, sex, and ethnic bias.  Ames had been praised by the newly appointed New York City Schools chancellor, Richard Carranza, for her success in raising math scores.  Carranza was appointed New York City Schools chancellor by Mayor de Blasio in March 2018.  Ames now claims she was fired after sharing a Holocaust story and refusing to perform the "Wakanda" salute.

Ames claims she was forced to take a demotion in order to preserve her pension.  She says she was targeted because she is over 40, and Jewish.  Ames says she was grilled about her "ethnic background" and criticized by a colleague for sharing her grandparents' experience during the Holocaust in Poland.  She claims she was "admonished" for declining a request to take part in the comic book movie–inspired "Wakanda Forever" salute to "black power."

In August 2018, Ames was summoned to DOE headquarters, where Cheryl Watson-Harris, Carranza's top deputy, handed her a termination letter.  Watson-Harris told her the department was "was moving in a new direction."  Watson-Harris has subsequently moved to DeKalb, Georgia, where she was hired as superintendent with an annual salary of $325,000.  That is $75,000 less than the president of the United States receives.  

In addition to being terminated, Ames's colleagues were prohibited from communicating with her, and staff were ordered to "eradicate" any reference to Ames.  Ames was sent down the 1984 memory hole.  Ames had attended an "implicit bias workshop" where superintendents were asked to tell their personal stories.  When she related a story about her Jewish grandparents' situation during the Holocaust, a colleague, Rasheda Amon, informed her, "That is not about being Jewish!  It's about black and brown boys of color only."  Apparently, her personal story did not include "black or brown boys of color."

A second NYC superintendent was also terminated.  Rafaela Espinal, former head of New York's Community School District 12, was fired because she declined to take part in a group "Wakanda Forever" salute to black power.  She was criticized by Bronx superintendent Meisha Ross Porter, who frequently asked gatherings of DOE administrators to do the "Wakanda Forever" salute.  Porter allegedly referred to the 1960s Black Panther Party when encouraging staff members to make the gesture.  She told them about her father's involvement in the Black Panthers.  Porter was later promoted to executive superintendent. 

Espinal, who identifies as an Afro-Latin, claims that a fellow DOE administrator told her she wasn't "black enough" and she should "just learn to be quiet and look pretty."  Obviously, she was not told that by a white male, because that certainly would have made the front page.  Espinal was fired in August 2018 because she did not fit into the department's new agenda.  She was one year short of earning a lifetime DOE pension and accepted a lower-level position in order to keep her benefits.  She is also suing the New York City Department of Education for $40 million.

A DOE spokeswoman told the New York Post that the department is committed to a "safe, inclusive work environment" and denied any claims of discrimination.  She asserted that the "Wakanda Forever" salute is a symbol "used to represent the Bronx," not black power.  But is it possible that this gesture could be easily misinterpreted?  Apparently, that was Espinal's problem.  People frequently misinterpret gestures.  Some people have been fired for making the "OK" gesture or even cracking their knuckles. 


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John Dietrich is a freelance writer and the author of The Morgenthau Plan: Soviet Influence on American Postwar Policy (Algora Publishing).  He has a Master of Arts degree in international relations from St. Mary’s University.  He is retired from the Defense Intelligence Agency and the Department of Homeland Security.  He is featured on the BBC's program Things We Forgot to Remember.