Last week, President Trump gave a press conference on the events that took place in Charlottesville, Virginia. He doubled down on his original statement where he placed blame on both sides and did not condemn White supremacy or neo-Nazism.
In just his 214 days in office, President Trump has made attempts to deport Iraqis back to a genocide, ban travel from predominantly Muslim countries and build a wall to keep Mexicans from immigrating.
These attempts have subjected people of color and immigrants to serious harm and it’s no secret that what our president does, and the culture he creates, trickles down into America’s classrooms.
I spoke to a teacher recently about what it’s like to teach in a conservative, mostly White school district. She told me that this past year was her hardest year yet because students felt empowered to embrace racism.
Recently, she did an activity with her all White, eighth-grade class on slavery. She had her students close their eyes and imagine they were Dred Scott, from the historical Dred Scott v. Stanford case. They envisioned what it would be like to be told that they not only didn’t have the same human rights as White people, but they couldn’t even ask for them. She asked them to imagine the feelings of utter outrage, despair and sadness they would experience at not being treated like a human being.
During this activity, a student raised his hand to say, “Well Black people are like monkeys, so it’s true.”
This student, a 13- or 14-year-old boy, felt comfortable enough to say to his teacher in a room full of his peers that Black people are monkeys and not people. That Black people don’t deserve basic human rights. Though this student is nearing an age where he should be held responsible for his beliefs and actions, I don’t believe he is quite there. However, that is a privilege many young students of color are not granted by society.
Parents called to ask if she could stop doing the activity because they felt it was “promoting too liberal an agenda.” Does this have anything to do with liberal politics? We’re talking about slavery! About the Civil War! We’re talking about equality and human rights! Since when are those things exclusively “liberal”?
Now, I’m not saying an activity like this will cure everyone of their racism—but it did reveal two very important things. Somehow a child born in the United States after the year 2000, who is almost in high school, actually thinks and is able to say that Black people are animals. That they’re not like him, a White person. And somehow parents can say that attempting to empathize with a slave is “liberal.”
If we can’t get past condemning slavery, how are we supposed to empathize with the less obvious racial divides and inequality of today?
Students who can’t see slavery for what it is (a clear violation of human rights), students who witness White supremacists openly protesting without even wearing masks, and students who have a president who can’t even condemn the KKK or neo-Nazis, are being painfully failed by their country.
They are subject to joining these hate groups if they never learn that hate and inequalities are evils in this world, and it should be every person’s—every American’s—mission to dedicate their lives to stamping it out and promoting justice and equality.
If the president of the United States of America can’t condemn White supremacy, and if we’re raising White children to believe that Black students don’t deserve the same innate rights as them, then we’ve taken a million steps backward. And frankly, we need to be millions of steps ahead. The continued segregation of schools and inequitable distribution of funds and resources (among other things) that allow middle-class White students to succeed compared to low-income students and students of color requires a lot more empathy than the parents and students in this teacher’s classroom cared to exert.
As students across the nation are returning to school, how can educators teach them to reject hatred when that’s something their president can’t even do?