Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Teaching About White Supremacy in the Trump Era


Over the past year and a half, I was quite busy creating an elementary social studies curriculum and was on hiatus from blogging. I return to blogging about social studies and education with this post related to the events from last year in Charlottesville, Virginia, and teaching about White supremacy (and the upcoming "Unite the Right 2" event in Washington, D.C.).

Before becoming a Supreme Court justice, Louis Brandies wrote, “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.” While this related to his views of corporate transparency, I find this quote particularly helpful in framing the teaching of White supremacy and racism in the classroom. There may be a worry among some teachers or parents that students are not ready to learn about White supremacy (or racism more broadly), or that by teaching about White supremacy, it may actually lead to more racism. Yet, sunlight is the best disinfectant in regard to racism and White supremacy. By learning about White supremacy in the past and present, how it functions, and ways to work against it, students will be better prepared for a world where it has control over so many social factors. At the same time, I also argue that in our current era, it may be more difficult than before for teachers to teach about White supremacy.



Over the past two years, there have been several high profile events that have exposed White supremacy to many Americans who were previously unaware of it. As a private citizen and later a candidate, Donald Trump routinely used racist rhetoric (including his negative portrayal of African Americans, Mexicans, Central Americans, and Muslims), which appeared part of his political strategy and was likely a major factor in his electoral victory. As a president, he has continued this rhetoric and attempted to enact certain racist policies (such as this, this, and this), which may influence his ongoing support by some groups of Whites). While some may argue that Trump’s language and actions are unusual for an American president, I would argue that he is simply illuminating the White supremacy that has long permeated American society, including its government (he may simply be expressing what many politicians, including some past presidents, thought, but did not express publicly for fear of the political ramifications). Concurrently, there has been the rise of the Alt-Right, which is an attempt to unite a series of far right ideologies under a core belief of White nationalism. Alt-Right groups were responsible for the "United the Right" event in Charlottesville that included a nighttime White supremacist rally that used Tiki torches to imitate Nazi rallies of the past and an attack where a man drove his car into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing Heather Heyer and injuring 19 other people. Finally, there has been a dramatic increase in reported hate crimes, with many specifically targeting Latino/a and Muslim Americans (which has been labeled by some as the Trump effect), over the past two years.


These events have presented some very difficult issues for social studies teachers (and teachers in general) who routinely make current events a focus of their classrooms. Many teachers have a fear that if they ask students to critically evaluate the words and actions of Trump (in the same way that they did for Barack Obama, George W. Bush, or Bill Clinton before him), they may now incite emotional (and possibly uncontrollable) discussions in their classrooms, or worse, be labeled as trying to politically indoctrinate their students. Yet, if teachers are not engaging their students in civil discussions and critical analyses of Trump’s words and actions (the same discussions that all democratic citizens should be having), then they are missing an important opportunity to help their students make sense of the current political climate and its implications for our country (and its future).

To make clear, when teaching White supremacy in the age of Trump, it is important to draw careful distinctions between the larger ideological movement and the president. While Trump's language and actions are certainly guided by White supremacy (including his defense of White supremacists in Charlotteville as "very fine people on both sides" and his re-Tweeting of White supremacist anti-Muslim videos from Britain), to simply conflate the two would be a mistake; it would not only alienate some conservative students, but also possibly prevent any productive classroom discussions or inquiries on the topic. In fact, this should not be a partisan issue (and numerous members of Trump's own political party have condemned his stances on a number of occasions when he used racist language and or engaged in racist actions; see here and here).

So, how should teachers help students understand White supremacy and its role in history and present day? I suggest teachers focus on three things when addressing issues of White supremacy in their classrooms.


1. Place White supremacy within a historical context, but also connect the history of White supremacy to the present day.

It is essential for teachers to help students place White supremacy within the much larger historical context of the country (i.e. European colonization of the Americas, Africa, and Asia, race in the colonial era, slavery, Reconstruction, the Jim Crow era, the War on Drugs, the L.A. Riots, Hurricane Katrina), but also connect that history to the present day. This is to help students see that White supremacy, as an ideology, has existed across U.S. history and was not ended during the civil rights movements or as a result of Barack Obama's election (as some people have suggested), but persists in our current society.

I recommend explicitly teaching about both overt and covert White supremacy. It is helpful to provide examples. For instance, rallies like "Unite the Right," spray painted swastikas, or the Charleston Church Shooting are all examples of overt White supremacy. The perpetrators of White supremacy are very clear that racial hate motivates them. However, there is also covert White supremacy. This is where White supremacy is much more nuanced or hidden. It may be perpetrated in a way that does not make racial hate as obvious. For instance, the 1998 Willie Horton political advertisement is a good example, as it intentionally used race to convince a group of White voters (through their racial fear) to vote for a specific political candidate. Or, it can be carried out by people who are not even aware of their White supremacy. For example, numerous studies have been done on implicit bias, which are unconscious and automatic features of prejudiced judgment, or microaggressions, behaviors or statements that do not necessarily reflect malicious intent but can inflict insult or injury. This may impact how White police officers react to certain situations involving people of color or how a person of color may be routinely overlooked for job interviews. This type of White supremacy is far more systemic and structural. It means that people of color must routinely justify their abilities or even their existence to Whites. While students may be much more familiar with overt than covert White supremacy, it is important that they are provided with examples of both. Covert White supremacy leads many White Americans to support racist actions or policies (without even recognizing the underlying White supremacy). It presents a "less ugly” racism and often frames White supremacy using “common sense” language (for instance, in arguments opposing affirmative action, you may hear, "if you support fairness, why would you support something that gives a preference to some groups over others?" It re-frames a program that is mean to support groups disadvantaged by racism as actually disadvantaging the dominant group). For some, this covert White supremacy can eventually becomes overt (See this piece on the "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville).

2. Allow practice using critical media literacy on past and present racist images and writings.

It is also important for teachers to have students practice using critical media literacy to analyze racist images from the past and present (I recently gave a presentation at the New-York Historical Society about this, which include some examples of how race is presented in the media and how young learners may experience it-within a larger discussion of teaching difficult history at the elementary-level). It is important for students to not only be able to critically evaluate the media in their own world, but also cases of White supremacy from the past. For instance, Malcolm Cawthorne and Kathryn Leslie have used an interview with a White nationalists in their class at Brookline (Massachusetts) High School to help students see how people in our current time may hold overt White supremacist ideas. Or, Jeffrey Morgan, an English teacher, had students analyze White supremacist propaganda found on the Internet. However, these teachers also connected the present day to a long history of White supremacy in the United States. Whether it be overt White supremacy, such as when 30,000 Ku Klux Klan members marching on Washington, D.C. in 1925, or covert White supremacy, like how most White people in the American South accepted and supported Jim Crow Laws in their daily life. Teachers might have students analyze political cartoons about immigrants in the early 20th century or racial depictions of the Japanese during World War II, but then ask students to look for similar examples in the media of their current world, such as in the news media or how certain groups are portrayed on social media posts. It is important to show that there were-and are-people who engaged in purposeful acts of White supremacy, but also people who were-and are-complicit in a system that allows it to continue.

3. Provide students with possible ways to work against White supremacy. 

Finally, it is important to avoid fostering in students a fatalism around White supremacy (or a belief that it cannot be changed; that Whites will always hold prejudice toward others and maintain a racist system). The best way to do this is to provide tangible ways to work against White supremacy. Without tangible ways to reduce White supremacy, students may be left thinking "there is nothing that I can do."  One way teachers can do this is to expose students to the many different resources for anti-racist understanding and action, both covert, such as Harvard's Project Implicit, the Weldon Cooper Center's Racial Dot Maps, or the Mapping Police Violence Project, and overt, such as the many organizations that keep track of hate groups, including the SPLC's Hate Watch and Hate Map, and the Anti-Defamation League's Hate Crimes List. The final step it to help students (and your fellow colleagues) access possible ways to take that knowledge and work for change. This included community resources, like the Southern Poverty Law Center's Community Response Guide to Hate, articles and books on doing anti-racism work, and professional development from groups like Teaching Tolerance on teaching about anti-racism. The United States has long struggled with its White supremacy past and it will take education and action to work against it in the future.

Additional Resources:

Below are a few additional resources that can help teachers in their approach to White supremacy in the classroom.

An article from The Atlantic on how teachers are addressing issues related to the Alt-Right in the classrooms:
https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2017/04/the-alt-right-curriculum/521745/

Strategies for teaching about Charlottesville from the Anti-Defamation League:
https://www.adl.org/education/resources/tools-and-strategies/after-charlottesville-teaching-about-racism-anti-semitism

A lesson plan from PBS Learning Media on understanding White supremacy:
https://ca.pbslearningmedia.org/resource/iml04.soc.ush.civil.lp_whsup/understanding-white-supremacy/#.W1ZCfH4yVZ0

A lesson plan from AFT Share My Lesson on Charlottesville and White supremacy:
https://sharemylesson.com/teaching-resource/when-hate-headlines-resources-k-12-educators-288511

An article from Nikki Brown in the Washington Post:
https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/made-by-history/wp/2018/08/13/teaching-white-supremacy-in-the-age-of-the-alt-right/

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