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Is There a Point in Trying to Engage in a Dialogue With Your Oppressor?

Last week, Betsy DeVos, who promotes separate but equal education, delivered the commencement speech at an HBCU, and was met by protests. Why was she even invited?

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Last Wednesday, I stood on the sidewalk outside the Ocean Center in Daytona Beach, the site of the commencement ceremony for Bethune-Cookman’s Class of 2017. Mid-morning, and it was already Florida hot.  Florida heat is not the sizzling heat of the desert, or the broiling heat of a Midwestern summer afternoon, but heat like a crab boil, the steam of the humidity combined with a sun that is always set to “high” and it will make even the most durable of people wilt. When I arrived, just before 10:30, there were about 50 protesters present, most of them standing on the edge of the road, holding up signs that through various slogans and symbols protested the imminent arrival of the commencement speaker unwanted by seemingly everyone in the academic community of Bethune-Cookman University except for the president and some other senior members of the administration. Which begs the question: Why would an HBCU invite Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos to address its graduating class and honored guests?

The protesters, who were evenly split between white people and black people, older people with gray hair, and younger people with colors not found in nature, were united in their views that DeVos had been unworthy of the invitation. Despite her position as Secretary of Education, Devos was not honoring Bethune-Cookman with her address to the graduates. Instead, one of the most frequent terms that I heard used to describe her was that she was “uneducated,” with some protesters mistakenly believing that she did not have a college degree—she in fact has a B.A. in business administration and political science from Calvin College. What she does lack is educational credentials: no teaching certificate or training as an educator, which makes her appointment by Trump, like so many of his cabinet appointments, suspect.

Protesters, like Willie Hogan, were clear that Betsy DeVos represented a return to a system in which “separate but equal” would once again be argued as a legitimate system for schools. Hogan, who was born in 1949, and attended Florida schools when they were still segregated, had seen the likes of Betsy DeVos before. “She’s not qualified. DeVos wasn’t a real teacher,” he says. “She wants to send things back with the charter schools,” which he believes are segregated, “and that’s not right. I grew up in that time, and I’m glad that’s over with. The charter schools are going to cut out from my little nieces and nephews, and I don’t see where that’s right. DeVos is trying to set it down, make it go back into the past. Nobody wants that. Nobody wants the past.”

Our current president’s campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again,” wasn’t merely a racist dog whistle—it was a racist bullhorn. “Make America Great Again” was anything but subtle: It was a straightforward declaration that the America that had elected a Black president wasn’t great. The America that had accepted same-sex marriage and equality for the LGTBQ community wasn’t great. The America where a woman had control of her own body wasn’t great. An America where the majority of college students are women wasn’t great. The America where some of the most influential people in the world are Black women—Beyoncé and Oprah—wasn’t great. POTUS ran on a campaign driven by hate: racism, misogyny, xenophobia, Islamophobia, and homophobia.

The new mythology is that a broad swath of white, working-class voters put No. 45 in power, but they did so out of economic frustration. According to this sanitized version of election politics, he was elected as a populist candidate who promised them jobs and the hopes of a brighter future. But this whitewashes the fact that Trump ran a nativist, racist, jingoistic, misogynistic, homophobic campaign, and that the people who showed up at his often violent rallies responded to this aspect of his rhetoric. And it also overlooks the fact that a large percentage of his voters were also wealthy white people.

Why can’t we just be clear that those who are supporting Donald Trump—be they the people who voted for him, or the members of Congress who support his actions, or those people who have agreed to serve in his administration, are not unaware that this is the platform upon which he ran, and their decisions to stand with him makes them accomplices in this agenda? They are complicit.

Can we also stop treating them as if they are going to have these miraculous moments of conversion and decide to become better human beings? We often refer to huge conversions as “Road to Damascus” moments, a reference to Saul’s conversion on the road to Damascus by which he became a convert to Christianity and took the name Paul. But this type of conversion is so rare that they are often the myths that are associated with the founders of religions. They are not quotidian occurrences. It’s not a matter of an audience clapping its hands and wishing that members of the administration are going to become decent human beings.

So why do liberals continue to reach out their hands to these people as if being nice to them is going to change them? This attitude was exemplified again at Bethune-Cookman, when the president of the school continued to justify his decision on the basis that being at the school was somehow going to change DeVos’s perception of HBCUs.

Let us not forget the incident in late February, when President Trump staged a photo-op with 60 administrators from HBCUs. The meeting with officials was supposed to generate some real guarantees of funding for the schools. Instead, the most memorable moment that came out of Trump’s meeting was the photo of Kellyanne Conway in the Oval Office, kneeling on a couch as she attempted to take a photo. Conway was criticized for being disrespectful of the administrators and of offending the dignity of the presidency, and that debate overshadowed the fact that the presidents of the HBCUs had walked away from the meeting with nothing of substance.

The president of Bethune-Cookman responded to those who criticized his decision to invite DeVos by invoking all of the liberal buzzwords and clichés. He argued that to rescind the invitation to Devos would be akin to a crime, because it would “rob” the students of an opportunity.  “If our students are robbed of the opportunity to experience and interact with views that may be different from their own, then they will be tremendously less equipped for the demands of democratic citizenship.”

The implication of his remarks was that DeVos’s views had never been heard before by students at Bethune-Cookman. But is anyone really that naïve?

Betsy DeVos had already demonstrated that she is a member of the “alternative facts” squad that surround the president. On February 27, she engaged in what was called a “listening session with historically black college and university leaders.” But, after meeting with these leaders, she wrote: “HBCUs are real pioneers when it comes to school choice. They are living proof that when more options are provided to students, they are afforded greater access and greater quality. Their success has shown that more options help students flourish.”

DeVos is part of the contingent in this country who are committed to starving public schools of money. While the president of Bethune-Cookman may be committed to the principle that a well-educated citizenry strengthens democracy, the events in dictatorships around the world have demonstrated that poorly educated or non-education allows dictatorships to operate without resistance.

And let us not forget that DeVos champions what she calls “school choice,” a euphemistic term for allowing white parents to make certain that their children attend all-white schools. This is why she could argue that HBCUs—founded because Black students could literally not get into colleges because of segregation—are representatives of a model she wants to push among elementary-age children. Private schools are also not subject to the requirements that govern public schools—not only academic requirements, but also the accommodation for children with special needs in DeVos’s private-school world, like children who use wheelchairs, or children on the autism spectrum.

Despite the fact that they are the ones who want to restrict the experiences of their children so that they only study a history of white achievement and go to school with Stepford children, people on the left—the ones who try to put no restrictions on what qualifies as human experience—are the ones who are always asked to accommodate them. And this courtesy is not returned, while we are blamed for being intolerant of their worldviews.

Another person present at the protest—Evan S. Smith—insisted that the protesters were not trying to shut down dialogue. Smith, an alumnus of Bethune-Cookman and a local Daytona Beach pastor, identified himself as a proponent of public education, and wanted to speak with the Secretary of Education. “I’m not against her coming,” says Smith, who believes that “finances, and being able to have relationships with people in D.C.” had driven the decision to invite DeVos, which he understands. “I think we should have a relationship with her. I just don’t think that commencement was the appropriate time to come.” Smith says that concerned alumni had told the president to invite her to come some other time. I asked him if he thought that the president had taken attention away from the students’ special day by going ahead with the DeVos commencement speech.

“Absolutely not,” he says. “I think this is a wake-up call for all of us. This happening today is a great thing and it actually brings national attention to the graduation.” As he spoke to me, I could see seven television station trucks parked in front of the Atlantic Center, and a national news feed was being set up. Smith was determined that as unqualified as Betsy DeVos was to speak to the Bethune-Cookman graduates, whose graduation regalia included included kente stoles, a tradition that honored the students’ African heritage, that the attention caused by the president’s ill-considered decision could be turned to good by focusing all that national attention on the legacy of Bethune-Cookman University.

Outside protesters weren’t the only ones in revolt. When the time came for Secretary DeVos to deliver her speech, the graduating class indicated their protest of her presence. Despite the anger of the president, who threatened the students with expulsion from their own graduation ceremony, the students stood as a group and turned their back on DeVos, indicating that they were both unwilling to listen to her and they did not recognize her right to speak to them. The students were absolutely right to do this: What is the point of trying to engage in dialogue with people who will not even recognize your basic rights to exist?



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