When a white woman riding in an Uber heard the news over the radio that Britain’s Prince Harry was engaged to a black woman, she shrieked, “He couldn’t find anyone white!” When the driver, a black woman who recounted the incident to me a few fares later, coolly looked at her, the woman stammered that she didn’t really mean anything—as if the words of her mouth had not betrayed the meditations of her heart.
That’s the same way I view President Donald Trump’s intentional put-down of Sen. Elizabeth Warren by mocking her as “Pocahontas” as he ostensibly honored Native American veterans of World War II while standing in front of a photo of President Andrew Jackson, the slaveholder known as “Indian Killer” who was responsible for the forced removal of Native Americans from southeastern states to what is now Oklahoma.
President Trump’s true feelings fall trippingly off his tongue and through his Twitter feed.
That brings me to Roy Moore, whose unscripted words offer insight into what he’s up to as he seeks Alabama’s contested seat in the U.S. Senate. His alleged sexual misbehavior has moved key Republicans and leading Alabama newspapers to disavow him. Yet he is the candidate of President Trump; of Steve Bannon, the president’s white nationalist Rasputin; and of a majority of Alabama’s white evangelicals for whom voting for any Democrat is a sacrilege.
At a religious gathering a couple of weeks ago, Mr. Moore played the martyr, quoting a passage of scripture in which Jesus offers a blessing to disciples who faced persecution for his sake. That would be Roy Moore, according to Roy Moore, who went on to pinpoint just when American society began its long downward spiral. After decrying the Supreme Court ruling forbidding Christian prayer in public schools, he said: “They started to create new rights in 1965, and today we’ve got a problem.”
I heard Mr. Moore loudly and clearly. He singled out the year when the Voting Rights Act became law, after blacks and their white allies did indeed become martyrs on Bloody Sunday in Selma, Ala., and in other campaigns for the civil rights originally extended to blacks in post-Civil War amendments to the U.S. Constitution. They were “new rights” to the likes of Roy Moore only because states like his Alabama and my Georgia had ignored the Constitution for nearly a century. What happened in the 1960s—including the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Fair Housing Act of 1968 and even changes in media that followed the damning Kerner Commission report in 1968—marked what seemed like America moving into its greatness.
The arc of history led to the election of President Barack Obama, a black man. We are now well into a post-Obama backlash and purging reminiscent of what followed Reconstruction, that decade after the Civil War when blacks made great strides in civil society, in politics, in business. The earlier backlash gave us Jim Crow laws, separate-but-equal and the Ku Klux Klan—a situation that the activism of the 1950s and 1960s began to reverse.
Mr. Moore wants a return to the 1950s or maybe even the 1850s, when, he might say, women, blacks, Native Americans and Mexicans knew their place. “Today we’ve got a problem” means women demanding freedom from unwanted sexual advances and the right to make reproductive decisions; Native Americans fighting against oil pipelines and other encroachments against their sovereignty; Mexicans and Haitians and others challenging misguided immigration policies; black people having the audacity to seek equity.
Those who support Roy Moore and his ilk fear that their time is running out, but they still have enough mischief in them to wreak havoc on our democracy. They are busily at work: Mr. Bannon and the white nationalist strategists he left behind in the White House, Jeff Sessions in the Justice Department, other cabinet members whose mission is to dismantle the agencies they head, deep-pocketed backers of anti-democratic conservative causes—and politicians who prey upon the religious-minded by practicing a situational Christianity that cherry picks their sacred texts.
Stopping them requires voting and a deep study of history. That will show that Mr. Moore’s rendering of the 1960s is off the mark—and that Meghan Markle, the biracial actress who is Prince Harry’s intended, would not be the first royal of African descent in the British family tree.
As the adage goes, “If you don’t stand for something, you will fall for anything.”
A few recent headlines could be filed under the category “Racism Is Bad and Wrong.”
First up, a controversy in which an African-American nurse working at the Indiana University Health system posted this screed on Twitter: “Every white woman raises a detriment to society when they raise a son. Someone with the HIGHEST propensity to be a terrorist, rapist, racist, killer, and domestic violence all star. Historically every son you had should be sacrificed to the wolves B----.”
She was promptly fired.
In Lake Villa, Illinois, a Hispanic detective who was in the process of conducting a theft investigation responded to a group of teen suspects who asked why they were being detained with: “Because you’re white.”
It was a bizarre thing to say—Lake Villa is a predominantly white outer-ring suburb of Chicago. If you watch the video (http://bit.ly/2AVUXLC), which immediately went viral, the comment came totally out of the blue, since the teens had not made any references to race or police mistreatment or anything that would seem to elicit such a response.
The detective—who apologized to the teen who filmed the video—was disciplined.
Lastly, the University Star, the student newspaper of Texas State University, recently came under fire for printing a student’s guest op-ed column titled “Your DNA is an abomination.”
The student, who is Hispanic, wrote, among other explosive things: “Ontologically speaking, white death will mean liberation for all. To you good-hearted liberals, apathetic nihilists and right-wing extremists: accept this death as the first step toward defining yourself as something other than the oppressor. Until then, remember this: I hate you because you shouldn’t exist.”
The university president, Denise M. Trauth, released a statement declaring, “The column’s central theme was abhorrent and is contrary to the core values of inclusion and unity that our Bobcat students, faculty, and staff hold dear. As president of a university that celebrates its inclusive culture, I detest racism in any manifestation.”
The student newspaper issued its own statement in which it apologized for having “caused hurt” within the campus community.
The incident had the net effect of serving as more kindling on the fire for those who feel that (a) American colleges and universities seem to exist solely to indoctrinate students with far-left propaganda and (b) the only logical response to hatred is more, and harsher, hatred.
The pendulum is swinging back and forth at a dizzying speed, with dueling finger-pointing at others’ poor behavior (as if everyone started out on equal economic, social and political footing). The result is escalating vitriol from two sides digging in their heels and increasingly acting as if racism either barely exists or overlays every human interaction in America.
But when people of color start seeing all white people as racist monsters, white people start seeing all people of color as racism accusers. When genocide terminology gets bandied about by either camp, it’s pretty clear everyone needs a reminder that two wrongs don’t make a right.
“Racism is racism, period,” said Gustavo Arellano, author of several books about Mexican culture, former editor of OC Weekly and creator of the popular “Ask A Mexican!” column. “Some people say that people of color can’t be racist because they don’t come from white privilege, but they’re wrong, because that denies basic humanity—none of us are perfect, we all have our own bigotries.”
Arellano told me the same thing my parents said as I was growing up: “There are bad white people, bad African-Americans, bad Hispanics, bad all kinds of people, but we can’t paint everyone with one big paintbrush.”
When stories circulate about white-profiling detectives of color and students who consider white people “an aberration,” they have the effect of making minorities even more of a target for hatred by people who already think we don’t belong.
And the same goes for white people—the vast majority cringe at the very notion that they might be envisioned by others as torch-wielding white supremacists.
Before you make any snap judgments about people, remember that racism cuts both ways, damaging relations that may yet have a chance at taking a turn for the better.
My students often have told me stories. Stories about other teachers. Mostly stories about those they consider “bad” teachers or “unfair” teachers. Why they do this, I’m not sure. Perhaps they feel safe with me; perhaps they appreciate the outrage I feel on their behalf. Perhaps it’s just because I listen.
In an English 101 class (freshman writing), we were group critiquing rough drafts of first essays. One student shared that she really had no idea of how good or bad her essays were because her high school English teacher had never graded one. The student had never received criticism before either, she said, because this teacher assigned essays, collected the essays and then just gave the student a grade.
This wasn’t just supposition on my student’s part; apparently, a fellow student of hers had actually put this to the test. The student had turned in an essay that was all one word (Essay, essay, essay, etc.).
He got a B.
Another student told the story of a college math instructor who runs his class like an e-course. The students enter class, sit down at their computers, pull up an “instructional” chapter and read it, do a test, print the test and give it to the teacher to grade. If they pass, they move on to the next chapter; if they don’t pass, they do it again.
Not once has the instructor instructed.
Then there’s the student who joined my English 101 face-to-face class, having dropped her online class because students simply had three writing assignments per week—no instruction, no discussion, no critical thinking or criticism. She said she joined my class because she actually wanted to learn how to write.
A student came into class in a temper one day. She ranted about not knowing how to join a required “chat” in her online history class because no instructions had been given and she could not contact the instructor. The instructor had written them a note at the beginning of the semester to “ask other students” if they had problems with the website. Yet, she would be downgraded for missing the chat. (Needless to say, I showed her how to do it.)
There are more. The high school teacher who treats her students as if they’re fourth-graders, the teacher who doesn’t allow questions, the teacher who insists they come to class or lose points even if ill, and on and on.
Are these experiences just aberrations?
Could be. Or the stories might be exaggerated. But there’s usually a grain of truth in even the tallest tales. I know there’s truth in the stories told about me.
More than one student has told me that I’m “constantly” getting “off topic” because I might hold a political discussion or cultural debate when attempting to teach students opinion writing, or I will tell a personal experience (or more than one!) in an effort to get students to share ideas and tell their own stories, as we begin a module on narrative. Not every style of pedagogy works for every student.
Yet if we want to find out what makes a “good” teacher, what might help is to listen to our students, and, in so doing, stop evaluating teachers based on their degrees, how well they fill in required paperwork or how many of their students pass. We must begin to evaluate teachers based on whether or not they can, and will, actually teach students when they get in a classroom, be it face-to-face or online.
How will we know how “good” teachers really are? It won’t be on the students’ grade sheets. Some students say a “C” from one teacher is worth much more than an “A” from another, because they actually learned something in the C-teacher’s class.
It won’t be how “loved” a teacher is that makes her “good.” Some teachers who are hated now are loved later, when the student realizes how much he or she learned.
If you really want to know the good from the bad, you simply need to listen.
Students will tell you stories.