How did Education Secretary Betsy DeVos react to the weekend violence when white supremacists, neo-Nazis and Ku Klux Klan members staged a march and fought with counterprotesters, leaving one woman dead and many injured?
These are the two tweets that she posted Aug. 12:
I'm disgusted by the behavior and hate-filled rhetoric displayed near the University of Virginia in #Charlottesville (1/2)
— Betsy DeVos (@BetsyDeVosED) August 12, 2017
It is every American's right to speak their mind, but there is no room for violence or hatred. (2/2)
— Betsy DeVos (@BetsyDeVosED) August 12, 2017
The same day she also retweeted this from first lady Melania Trump:
Our country encourages freedom of speech, but let's communicate w/o hate in our hearts. No good comes from violence. #Charlottesville
— Melania Trump (@FLOTUS) August 12, 2017
The Education Department did not respond to a query about whether any other statement was available. So that appears to be the extent of her comments about an act of domestic terrorism on a college campus.
In this post, an African American educator blasts her for what he calls a “woefully insufficient” response and why it matters. He is Andre Perry, a former charter network chief executive who has worked in both academic and administrative capacities, most notably as chief executive of the Capital One-University of New Orleans Charter Network, which consisted of four charter schools in New Orleans. He is also the former founding dean of urban education at Davenport University in Grand Rapids, Mich. A native of Pittsburgh, Perry earned his PhD in education policy and leadership from the University of Maryland at College Park. His 2011 book is titled “The Garden Path: The Miseducation of a City.” This fall, he will start as a Rubenstein fellow at the nonprofit Brookings Institution in Washington.
A version of this post first appeared in the Hechinger Report and on the Root.com as a collaboration exploring race and education. The Hechinger Report is a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. The Root is an online magazine of African American culture. Perry gave me permission to republish the piece.
The Education Department did not respond to a query about Perry’s criticism of DeVos’s response to Charlottesville.
By Andre Perry
President Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos have not wholeheartedly renounced white supremacy after the deadly violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, which was sparked by a rally of white supremacists, neo-Nazis and members of the Ku Klux Klan. But teachers must.
James Alex Fields Jr., the driver who allegedly plowed into a crowd of counterprotesters on Saturday, Aug. 12, killing one and injuring many more at the “Unite the Right” march, had spouted Nazi ideology in high school, according to Derek Weimer, Fields’s former history teacher. Weimer did not manage to derail Fields’s 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.
As schools open across the country, it 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 campus of the University of Virginia were born out of America’s historical endorsements of slavery, segregation, discrimination and biased policies. And for a variety of reasons, the country’s schools have failed to educate students about the country’s history and present.
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.’” Indeed, those who used the #thisisnotus hashtag in the aftermath of the neo-Nazi, “alt-right,” KKK march could not be more wrong, and the U.S. education secretary did nothing to help make things right. She wrote a two-tweet response to the violence. One said, “I’m disgusted by the behavior and hate-filled rhetoric displayed near the University of Virginia in #Charlottesville.” The other said: “It is every American’s right to speak their mind, but there is no room for violence or hatred.”
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 and waved Confederate and Nazi 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 (a.k.a. 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 and 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 the conditions that students, teachers and families must face, no matter how painful it is to look hatred in the face. 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.
People who are targeted by hate groups are stepping forward as DeVos and Trump step back. Melinda Anderson, a writer for the Atlantic, 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 of information that’s posting to the hashtag is the nonprofit Teaching Tolerance, which provides free resources to teachers, administrators, counselors and other practitioners. It has been helping teachers educate for a diverse democracy for years.
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 — in and out of school — to do it.