NYC educator fired for refusing ‘Black Panther’ salute: suit

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Pledge your allegiance to “Wakanda Forever” — or else.

A veteran Bronx educator claims she was fired in part because she refused to mimic a salute to Black power from the 2018 comic-book movie “Black Panther” during superintendent meetings.

At official gatherings of high-level Department of Education bosses, then-Bronx superintendent Meisha Ross Porter often asked the group to do the arms-across-the-chest gesture of solidarity from the mythical African nation of Wakanda. The salute is considered a symbol of empowerment.

When Rafaela Espinal — a Dominican-American who describes herself as Afro-Latina — declined to join in, she “was admonished and told that it was inappropriate for her not to participate,” according to a Manhattan Supreme Court lawsuit filed Feb. 3 against the city DOE, Chancellor Richard Carranza and some of his top-ranking lieutenants.

Espinal was one year shy of earning a lifetime DOE pension when she was abruptly fired from her role as head of Community School District 12 in Bronx without explanation, after repeatedly refusing to do the “Wakanda Forever” salute, according to the lawsuit.

Desperate to keep her retirement benefits and health insurance, the single mom — who recently earned a doctorate — eventually accepted a humiliating demotion to school investigator, a role which requires only a high school diploma and which left her with no permanent desk or phone.

Porter, who was later elevated by Carranza to the post of “executive superintendent,” a promotion she celebrated with a lavish gala, has a Twitter timeline packed with group shots of DOE staff doing the “Wakanda Forever” salute. One shot features Carranza — who couldn’t manage to perform the gesture correctly in the pose — and Espinal.

The image showed Carranza, Porter, Espinal and others during the chancellor’s tour of the five boroughs, according to a source.

Chadwick Boseman as Black Panther (front), Chris Evans as Captain America (right of center, beard), Sebastian Stan as Winter Soldier (right, long hair), 2018.
The Department of Education insists the famous cross-arm gesture doesn’t refer to “Black power,” but is instead “a symbol used to represent the Bronx.”
©Walt Disney Co./Courtesy Everett Collection

But when repeatedly asked to salute “Wakanda” at other professional meetings, Espinal felt the gesture “introduced a racial divide where there should be none,” said her lawyers, Israel Goldberg, Helen Setton and Domenic Recchia.

Porter would often talk about the militant civil rights group the Black Panthers when asking superintendents to do the “Wakanda” salute, noting her father was a member, the attorneys said.

But the symbolic gesture associated with the group is the iconic single raised fist, as made famous by American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympics, not the cross-armed greeting popularized by the record-breaking superhero flick, which grossed more than $1.34 billion at the box office.

Forcing colleagues to do the “Wakanda” salute “corrupted” it, Goldberg said.

“The gesture was hijacked,” he noted.

The DOE insists the famous cross-arm gesture doesn’t refer to “Black power,” but is instead “a symbol used to represent the Bronx.”

Fellow DOE administrators also allegedly told Espinal she wasn’t “Black enough” and she should “just learn to be quiet and look pretty,” she claims in the $40 million suit.

Espinal, 50, claims racial fissures began to emerge in superintendent meetings in the fall of 2017, when some Black administrators would meet separately after the larger group’s monthly gatherings.

Soon, only the birthdays of Black superintendents were recognized at official meetings, she claims.

The racial tensions bubbled up just as the controversial Carranza was appointed chancellor of city schools in April 2018, and began pushing a platform of racial “equity” that critics have blasted as divisive and educationally problematic.

Espinal alleges Jose Ruiz, an advisor to then-first deputy chancellor Cheryl Watson-Harris, degraded her race and gender, saying, “You are so pretty but then you enter the room open your mouth and intimidate men and people.”

Watson-Harris, who has since jumped ship from the DOE to take charge of schools in DeKalb County, Georgia, didn’t even get Espinal’s district correct in her August 2018 termination letter, writing “you will not longer serve in District 8.”

Espinal was told the DOE was moving “in a new direction” and that she “did not fit into that agenda,” according to the legal filing.

She was forced to clean out her office on a Sunday and district staffers were forbidden to communicate with her, Espinal charges in court papers.

Porter and Watson-Harris declined to comment.

A DOE spokeswoman said the department is “committed to fostering a safe, inclusive work environment and strongly dispute any claims of discrimination or improper treatment.” 



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