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Editor’s note: After we published this column criticizing Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ response to the events in Charlottesville, DeVos sent an email to her staff condemning the “views of white nationalists, neo-Nazis and other racist bigots,” which she said are “hateful” and “totally abhorrent to the American ideal.”
President Donald Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos didn’t whole-heartedly renounce white supremacy last weekend, but teachers must. James Alex Fields Jr., the driver who allegedly plowed into a crowd of counter-protesters on Saturday, Aug. 12, killing one and injuring at least a dozen more at the “Unite the Right” march, had spouted Nazi ideology in high school, according to Derek Weimer, Fields’ former history teacher. Weimer did not manage to derail Fields’ hateful beliefs, but this is a challenge facing many more teachers as hate groups, emboldened by the election of Donald Trump, increasingly come into the open.
We educators must be more prepared than Trump.
As schools opened across the country today, it was and is our responsibility as teachers to begin with an authentic history lesson on the United States, and to participate in a national conversation on race, bigotry and the future of our communities.
What is past is prologue. The racism and xenophobia that we saw on the University of Virginia campus was born out of America’s historical endorsements of slavery, segregation, discrimination and biased policies. Hundreds marched with tiki torches, chanting “white lives matter” on Friday, and a riot ensued the next day. The White House’s reticence in condemning white supremacy and racism shows just how far we’ve progressed (which is to say, not much). Those who used the #thisisnotus hashtag in the aftermath of the neo-Nazi, “alt-right,” KKK march, could not be more wrong. I assume those who posted it on social media tried to diminish the hundreds of people who descended on the town as an aberration, and as a careful way to show solidarity with those whom racism harms. All of which is more evidence that schools are clearly failing our students and society at large.
Jelani Cobb, the New Yorker columnist, tweeted, “The biggest indictment of the way we teach American history is that people can look at #Charlottesviille and say ‘This is not who we are.’” DeVos’ remarks have been much less insightful.
DeVos wrote a two-tweet response to the violence that read: “I’m disgusted by the behavior and hate-filled rhetoric displayed near the University of Virginia in #Charlottesville (1/2). It is every American’s right to speak their mind, but there is no room for violence or hatred. (2/2).” Her generic and woefully insufficient statement effectively sanitized the hate that Nazis, Klan members and so called “alt-right” demonstrators put on full display as they shouted Nazi slogans such as “Sieg Heil” and waved Confederate flags, while carrying military gear. DeVos, the nation’s top teacher (clearly symbolic), failed the basic test of providing leadership to teachers, education officials and counselors on how to educate students out of bigotry, white supremacy and violence.
In an Associated Press story, DeVos said Washington (aka the federal government) has a responsibility to “set a tone.” But what tone did she set? Instead of unequivocally condemning the hateful and divisive ideology that was espoused by the neo-Nazi marchers, DeVos issued two bland tweets in the passive tense that proclaimed her disgust with the behavior and rhetoric that was displayed (By whom? Against whom?) and even managed to include a qualification that all Americans should be able to speak their minds.
Effective educators name, describe and identify — no matter how painful it is to look hatred in the face — the conditions that students, teachers and families must face.
DeVos is not ready to lead, and this proves it anew. From the opening bell of her confirmation hearings to her non-statement on Charlottesville, DeVos continues to show that she cannot be the education secretary our country deserves, and so desperately needs.
In that, she mirrored her boss, whose initial statements were criticized by many for being vague and weak. But the public’s outcry backed Trump into revising his statement and delivering a speech on Monday (though it should properly have been given before this planned hate march took place). DeVos, however, has yet to offer a more robust denouncement.
Trump and Devos may not know the essential purpose of education, which is to build, as stated in the Preamble of the U.S. Constitution, “a more perfect Union.” They may not even know what quality teaching looks like. But the events that transpired in Charlottesville are challenging teachers to do the hard work of creating civil, multicultural communities in our xenophobic, decidedly uncivil times. These are the times and tests that matter.
The people who are targeted by hate groups are stepping forward as DeVos and Trump step back. Melinda Anderson, writer for the Atlantic and member of the collaborative #educolor, started the hashtag #charlottesvillecurriculum, where teachers and education support groups are providing resources to help teachers in this critical time.
One of the best sources for information that’s posting to the hashtag is the nonprofit Teaching Tolerance, which provides free resources to teachers, administrators, counselors and other practitioners. They have been helping teachers educate for a diverse democracy for years.
I have to assume that Trump’s and DeVos’ slowness to name racism reflects either that they don’t know that white supremacy is supported by “fake news,” bigoted, politically driven and unscientific ideologies — or that they believe in them. Neither is acceptable.
Trump and DeVos are failing our students. Charlottesville was their teaching moment and they failed the test. How we teach in the aftermath of Charlottesville can be a bright footnote in the sordid history of American bigotry, or it can be just more of the same.
We can’t hide the past, but we can educate our way out of it. We just need the right teachers to do it.