A longtime educator from the Bronx is suing New York City’s Department of Education (DOE), claiming that she was fired after refusing to make the “Wakanda Forever” salute to black power during a school superintendent meeting.
Rafaela Espinal, formerly head of New York’s Community School District 12, said in a $40 million lawsuit filed earlier this month that she was abruptly fired without any given reason. She blamed her firing partly on not joining her peers to perform the arms-across-the-chest gesture from the fictional African kingdom of Wakanda featured in Marvel’s 2018 comic film “Black Panther.”
According to the lawsuit, then-Bronx superintendent Meisha Ross Porter, who was later promoted to executive superintendent, often asked attendees at professional meetings to do the Black Panther salutes in solidarity with the real-life militant socialist group that bears the same name, of which Porter’s father was a member.
Espinal, who is of Dominican ancestry and identifies as Afro-Latina, was “admonished and told that it was inappropriate for her not to participate” in the salutes, the lawsuit alleged.
The New York Post, which first reported on the lawsuit, found that Porter has a Twitter timeline packed with group photos of DOE staff performing the Black Panther salute, including one that shows Espinal not making the gesture while most of her colleagues did.
Espinal’s lawyers told the NY Post that their client felt the cross-arm gesture “introduced a racial divide where there should be none.”
The DOE countered Espinal’s claim that the arm gesture is meant to express solidarity with the historical Black Panther Party or black power movement, insisting that it is “a symbol used to represent the Bronx.”
A DOE spokeswoman said the department is “committed to fostering a safe, inclusive work environment and strongly disputes any claims of discrimination or improper treatment,” according to the NY Post.
The actual gesture associated with the Black Panther Party is a raised fist. The most iconic display of the gesture took place in 1968 in Mexico City, when American Olympic medalists John Carlos and Tommie Smith bowed their heads and raised black-gloved fists during the national anthem.
A similar lawsuit, also reported by the NY Post, was filed by veteran Bronx Superintendent Karen Ames, who alleged that her career suffered after she shared with her colleagues stories about her grandparents, who survived the Holocaust in Poland. She also said she came into conflict with colleagues because she refused to take part in the “Wakanda Forever” salute at superintendents meetings.
The New York City DOE didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.