Trump Administration Peddles White Supremacy During Black History Month and Beyond

It seems fitting that Donald Trump, Betsy DeVos, and Jeff Sessions would use Black History Month to center white supremacy.

[Photo: Trump stands in front of Oval Office desk, surrounded by leaders of Black HBCU leaders]
President Donald Trump was there for the photo op—to show that he is a great friend to “the Blacks.” Aude Guerrucci-Pool/Getty Images

Even as the Trump administration claims its supposedly populist proposed policies will serve vulnerable communities, those policies are further exploiting those very same vulnerable communities. The blunt truth is that the Trump administration is governing by white saviorism—in which they, as white folks, are patting themselves on the back for deigning to acknowledge Black people, all while using Black people as mascots to promote racist policies. And this week could not have made that more apparent.

On Monday, a group of presidents and leaders of historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) were scheduled to meet at the White House with members of the Trump administration and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos to ask for funding and support. But Trump and DeVos seem to have had another agenda.

The meeting was cut short when the HBCU presidents were whisked away to the Oval Office for an impromptu photo op with Trump, according to Walter Kimbrough, the president of Dillard University in Louisiana. In addition, Trump managed to offend some of the Black educational leaders by referring to them as “you people.”

Trump was there for the photo op—to show that he is a great friend to “the Blacks.”

DeVos, on the other hand, apparently was gearing up to implement her regressive “school choice” strategy—which is simply a buzzword used by folks who want to eliminate public education in favor of vouchers, charter schools, and virtual schools, all of which reduce resources available to already underfunded public schools—by gussying them up as policies that will help Black people.

Indeed, as a press release from the Department of Education in the wake of the meeting made painfully clear, she intends to enlist the HBCU presidents and other Black education leaders to promote policies that overall hurt Black students. She will use them as a distraction as she claims to help underserved communities, while siphoning the very taxpayer dollars necessary to make public schools in underserved communities better.

The structural reforms DeVos waxes philosophical about—the reforms she says will help students reach their full potential—will do anything but. Her idea of structural reforms is to get government out of the business of education and privatize it. This is her goal, and it’s not a secret.

DeVos’ statement after meeting with the HBCU presidents, combined with even a passing familiarity with this education philosophy, paints a grim picture.

“A key priority of this administration is to help develop opportunities for communities that are often the most underserved,” she said in the statement.

“Rather than focus solely on funding, we must be willing to make the tangible, structural reforms that will allow students to reach their full potential,” she continued.

Did you see what she did there? She started off by saying she wants to help underserved communities—sure, Betsy!—but immediately clarified that she doesn’t plan to do so by giving them any money—gee thanks, Betsy.

Granted, she said she wouldn’t focus solely on funding, but again, anyone with any knowledge of DeVos’ philosophy on education can infer that when she says she’s not going to focus solely on funding, she means, she’s not going to focus on funding at all.

Then DeVos said what landed her in hot water.

“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,” she said.

The reaction to DeVos’ comment were fierce and swift, and deservedly so; it’s stunningly stupid. But her comment also shows a willingness to pervert Black history, and historic moments for Black civil rights, in order to promote policies that will harm Black people.

HBCUs were not the product of choice. They were the product of necessity as a result of white supremacy: Racist white people refused to send their children to school with Black kids.

And for DeVos to use Black struggle and the formation of perpetually underfunded HBCUs to promote “school choice” policies that will make it difficult for anyone but the most wealthy to attain a decent education, and policies that will leave many low-income students, disabled students, and students of color behind, is, quite simply, deplorable.

Critics of school choice say that the voucher system results in parents taking their taxpayer dollars and using them to enroll their kids in private and parochial schools, many of which poor parents and parents of color can’t afford. (And there’s also that thorny separation of church and state issue that arises when taxpayer dollars are handed over to Catholic schools.) It’s relevant, too, that “vouchers” and similar systems were a favorite tool of segregationists in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education.

Certainly some Black families have found success with charter schools. Proponents argue that they provide educational opportunities for families who otherwise would not have access to them. Indeed, a recent poll indicates that two-thirds of Black people in some states support charter schools, according to the Atlanta Black StarCharter schools‘ critics like the Movement for Black Lives, however, argue that the system may provide a temporary solution to inadequacies in public schools, but it contributes to racial and socioeconomic segregation in the long term.

The conversation about charter schools will certainly continue in the Black community, but any suggestion that Betsy DeVos is on the side of Black students as she asks for “counsel and guidance” from HBCU leaders and presidents in “addressing the current inequities we face in education” should be taken with a grain of salt.

If what she did for Black students in Detroit is any indication, parents of Black students nationwide should be concerned. She famously has been the force behind the explosive proliferation of charter schools in Michigan, many of which are as bad as the public schools they are meant to supplant. In fact, a group of Detroit students is suing the State of Michigan, alleging that they have been denied a constitutional right to literacy in violation of the Equal Protection Clause; as we reported earlier for Rewire, the plaintiffs’ schools enroll 97 percent students of color.

The bottom line is that students of color in this country are in crisis, and the prescription that DeVos is proposing is only going to make it worse. What would serve Black communities and other communities of color is a drastic influx of funding to pay for books, teachers, and even climate-controlled classrooms and pest control. But DeVos’ policies won’t do that. Instead, she will decimate funding all the while incorrectly insisting that her purportedly populist policies—freedom of choice! Let the people do what they want!—will aid underserved communities.

And the Trump administration’s disgraceful co-opting of civil rights language and rhetoric hardly stops with DeVos and the Department of Education. On Monday, the U.S. Department of Justice announced a litigation 180 and said it no longer objected to the voting restrictions in Texas that even the conservative Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals found had the effect of disenfranchising Black and Latino voters. The move should come as no surprise. Remember, Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III called the Voting Rights Act (VRA) of 1965 an “intrusive” piece of legislation and cheered when the Roberts Court gutted it in Shelby County v. Holder, calling the ruling “good news … for the South.”

Also on Monday, Sessions delivered remarks commemorating Black History Month, where he started by invoking “equality” by giving a hat-tip to the Founding Fathers, many of whom were slaveholders and didn’t believe in the fundamental humanity of Black people.

Sessions then appropriately transitioned to his experience as a white Southerner in Alabama to explain the arc of civil rights advancements in this country. Seriously. First he invokes the slaveholders and then himself. It’s not just centered whiteness. It’s self-centered white supremacy.

No worries though, folks, Sessions understands racism. He gets it. “In my lifetime, I have seen raw discrimination first hand,” Sessions said. “Schools were not only separate but clearly unequal. Job opportunities in private and governmental offices went to white over blacks.  There was open wage discrimination. Too often our good and decent Black citizens were not just placed in a second-class citizenship but were denied the very basic rights of citizenship,” said Sessions. “The Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act were the pivot points.”

He said those words the same day the DOJ stopped challenging voter ID restrictions in Texas that were found in violation of the VRA. The man has no shame. Not to mention that the picture he’s painting of a discriminatory world is the end result of the very agenda DeVos is advancing at the DOE through a privatization plan for public schools that will largely benefit wealthy whites.

There is also another way to interpret Sessions’ remarks here. White saviorism depends on identifying “good and decent,” who were wronged and get the benefit of the law. Once those good and decent Black folk are identified, they can be distinguished from those who are not, which for the Trump administration is clearly not the Black majority.

Sessions gave an entire speech about white supremacy to mark Black History Month, and there’s just no other way to say it. He is so incredibly immersed in privilege that he is either clueless or maliciously ignorant. Likely both.

In fact it almost has to be both because the very next day Sessions took his white supremacy show to the National Association of Attorneys General’s winter meeting, where he suggested the DOJ would be engaging in urban crackdodewns in cities like Chicago to deal with guns and gangs and immigrants, all in the name of an upward trend in violent crime that doesn’t exist. From his emailed remarks:

The federal government has a key role to play in addressing this crisis. I pledge that under my leadership at the Department of Justice, we will systematically prosecute criminals who use guns in committing crimes. We will work to take down drug trafficking cartels and dismantle gangs. And we will enforce our immigration laws and prosecute those who repeatedly violate our borders.

In other words, brown folks, the Department of Justice is coming for you. In terms of the cost that Sessions’ “law and order” police style will have on those families? The Trump administration doesn’t care. “Yes, inarceration is painful for the families of inmates, and every conviction represents a failure on multiple levels of society,” said Sessions in the remarks. “But the costs of rising crime are even more severe.”

The Department of Justice is preparing a crackdown on communities of color based on the lie of rising crime rates, and does not care that it will rip apart family and calcify systemic racism. Even worse, Sessions is selling this as protecting these communities where the Obama administration had previously failed. The Department of Education is preparing a looting of public education based on the lie that “school choice” is the one-size-fits-all solution for parents trapped in school districts that are failing because white politicians refused to fund them to begin with. DeVos is shamelessly using HBCUs as a model of “choice” in education while ignoring their origin story as a reaction against white supremacy.

Trump is, first and foremost, a reality television star. He is a media manipulator. And he just sent two of his most visible appointees to sing a song embracing civil rights but centered on lethal whiteness. It’s more than a rhetorical bait-and-switch. It’s cynical and ugly, and it comes at the expense the health and safety of our communities of color.