Tonight, President Donald Trump will deliver his State of the Union address. Like many other U.S. citizens, I see our current president as deeply flawed, lacking in empathy, racist and unable to take responsibility for his actions. But as a Black woman, I view Donald Trump as just another tone-deaf, racist, empathy-lacking White man in a long line of White male political leaders.
These days, many educators are wrestling with the difficult question: “How can we teach our young people to be decent and empathetic when they see a president so lacking in decency and empathy getting away with it?”
While I appreciate the earnestness with which adults in schools are approaching this question, I want to share an epiphany I recently had about why this situation is the way it is. Maybe schools in America are fundamentally OK with this contradiction. Since the founding of this country, schools have been training grounds for White children, especially boys, to become the political leaders of the United States. Maybe schools know that their job is to ensure different outcomes for White children and Black children.
Let’s Talk about the School-to-Politics Pipeline of Privilege
Despite all the talk about ending separate and unequal schooling in the United States, we still have two very different, very unequal school systems here, one for White children and one for Black children. For Black students, we have a school-to-prison pipeline. We have schools that lack resources and overfocus on punitive discipline, creating a pipeline of prisoners that maintain the world’s largest, and extremely profitable, prison system in the United States. We hear a lot of talk and a lot of debate about how to end this pipeline.
But we hear much less about the school-to-politics pipeline and how schools—particularly elite schools of privilege, whether private or public—prime young White men for political leadership without teaching them empathy and humility. For example, there is Trump’s alma mater, the New York Military Academy, a school one graduate describes as “a little ‘Lord of the Flies,’” and where other graduates recall Trump being part of an elite circle that received privileges and special treatment. (The New York Military Academy was sold at bankruptcy auction in 2015 after 126 years of continuous operation. It reopened under new management in 2016.)
Public schools, especially in predominantly White, affluent communities, are also part of the school-to-politics pipeline. Here in the Chicago area we have New Trier High School in Winnetka, whose graduates in government include former U.S. Senator Mark Kirk, former National Security Agency chief Michael Rogers and current Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
Privilege Unchecked Leads to Racist and Sexist Actions
But there’s a flip side to these success stories. Brock Turner, the Stanford athlete convicted of sexual assault, attended Oakwood High School, a public school in an affluent suburb. As writer Kate Geiselman, who lives in the community, put it in the Washington Post, “There’s a Brock Turner in every Oakwood; the ‘nice,’ ‘clean,’ ‘happy-go-lucky’ kid who has never been told no. There’s nothing he can’t have, do, or be, because he is special.”
Here are the unwritten rules of the school-to-politics pipeline:
- Each White boy is special, an individual and needs to be treated as such.
- White boys’ reputations must be protected by the school.
- Never let their names be released to the public.
- Repeat, “boy, kid, lad.”
- Show pictures of them as innocent-looking as possible.
- The adults in the school are allies and go above and beyond to protect White boys.
- White boys are not responsible for their behavior, nor are their parents, school or community. If you need to allocate blame, rap music and/or mental illness will work.
- Teach White boys that being “scared” or “intimidated” is a justifiable excuse for any terrible thing they do, from bullying to genocide.
- The people White boys hurt are “out to get them” and, those people should be held accountable to White boys, not the other way around.
- Reverse racism is real but racism by White people does not exist.
- White women, including teachers, must protect White boys, even if their White boys are harming people of color, their children or even White women and girls.
Meanwhile, you can reverse every one of these rules to learn the unwritten rules of the school-to-prison pipeline, like this:
- Black boys are all the same and should be treated the same—no exceptions to the rules, even when there are extenuating circumstances.
- Black boys are a threat and do not deserve protection. They are assumed to be older than they really are. They are fair game for negative media attention at any age.
- Adults in the school perceive Black boys as “other,” a threat to be managed. They are not viewed as children like other children.
- Black boys are harshly disciplined the instant they “show disrespect,” or “get out of line.”
- Teach Black boys that no one will accept them if they are vulnerable; their only alternative is never to show fear.
- If there is a cultural problem with behavior in a school, hold the Black boys responsible and don’t look too hard for other issues. Especially not among adults in authority.
- White women, including teachers, must punish Black boys to “teach them a lesson” and “build their character.”
The only rule that holds true in both kinds of schools is: Reverse racism is real, but racism by White people does not exist. It is this rule that upholds both kinds of schools.
These two sets of rules illustrate what racial inequality and White supremacy look like in the real world. While we talk endlessly about how to improve academic outcomes for Black students and end the school-to-prison pipeline, we don’t ask ourselves whether the schools affluent White boys attend are failing by not training them in empathy, perspective-taking and other skills they need to be a responsible citizen in the 21st century.
Many White people I know are knowledgeable about racism and school inequality, but still can’t see how the behavior of privileged school communities enables racist attitudes and behavior. They aren’t calling for these schools to look at themselves in the mirror and rethink their teachings. They aren’t calling for greater attention to teaching kids how to be actively anti-racist and how to develop empathy for those who are unlike them.
Many White people completely miss the connection between protecting young men from the consequences of their teenage behavior and creating White male politicians who are tone-deaf, unapologetic racists and sexists, completely lacking in empathy.
Schools Must Counter Racism and Teach Empathy
It is important and necessary that schools Black children attend provide them with a high-quality academic education, including social-emotional skills like empathy and perspective-taking. But the reality is they will be taught through a White lens and will learn to put White people ahead of themselves, unless their teachers are explicitly anti-racist. It is equally important and necessary that schools White children attend provide them with a high-quality education that includes anti-racist and anti-sexist training.
Without this kind of direct attention to countering racism and learning about empathy for others, White boys, like the White male politicians they are now primed to become, will experience no consequences for their actions and remain completely blind to their privilege.