It seems like ancient history now, but in the run-up to the presidential election of 2016, many educators warned that then-candidate Donald Trump did not have the temperament to be president.
We listened closely to his words—the constant stream of insults, the belittling, the bullying. We recognized these outbursts. This was adolescent behavior at its worst. We knew then that this man should not be president and we knew he would be a terrible role model for our students.
One year in, and it is even worse than many of us imagined it would be.
In an Oval Office meeting with lawmakers, the President of the United States called Haiti, El Salvador, and Africa shithole countries (note to the president: Africa is a continent, made up of 54 sovereign nations). And yes, I used the word he used. I’m beyond trying to put lipstick on this pig.
Trump asked why we let “all these people” from the places he finds so distasteful come here. “Why do we need more Haitians?” Trump asked. He was disgusted that we don’t have more immigrants from places like Norway.
Now, let’s see. What are some of the key differences between Norway and the countries on the president’s list? Let us begin with the obvious one:
Norway is overwhelmingly white. The countries Trump denigrated are majority black and brown. NEA members serve students and families who come from and look like the people from the nations the president insulted. Many of our members themselves are from these nations.
Donald Trump is not merely a tough-talker. He is not just vulgar and rude. The problem is not simply that he lacks decorum and never learned basic civility (perhaps he skipped kindergarten). He is not just ill-informed or incurious.
Donald Trump, 45th president of the United States of America, is racist.
I have no doubt that I will hear from many educators who disagree. But I would ask them: Would you be OK with your students labeling nations as he did and implying that some people, particularly if they are black or Latino, have no value and don’t belong here?
Let us not forget that people of color built this nation, and therefore helped lay the foundation for Trump’s success—if you consider garnering wealth, but no wisdom, “success.” Native American lands were stolen…slaves toiled and generated riches for others…Chinese immigrants built railroads that helped power the Industrial Revolution. Student activist Mecca Verdell speaks about our past eloquently in her spoken word poem “For the Dreamers.” Trump probably considers this history fake news.
I don’t know where he goes from here. Each day, I feel like he’s already as low as he can get. Yet, I know that by next week, Trump will have made yet another outlandish or racist comment and sent perhaps a hundred grammatically challenged and mean-spirited tweets (all of which make the teacher in me cringe).
It is clear that we must all speak out, using whatever megaphones and forums we can. Those of us who vehemently disagree with the president cannot be quiet about it. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
We who know our history and appreciate it must act. We must demand the Dream Act be passed NOW; we have to stand up to the racist Muslim ban; we have to fight for funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program; we must demand that our fellow Americans in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands get the resources to recover from Hurricanes Irma and Maria. A new sense of urgency must push us to advocate for social and economic justice for all.
As educators, we must remind our students of American values. They include welcoming people of all cultures and ethnicities to this great nation and taking care of each other, because that is who we are. It took a long time for us to get here and we can’t let one man, no matter how powerful, set us back.
We must tell our students repeatedly that regardless of their backgrounds and where their families come from, they are valued for who they are as individuals. We believe in all students. Our mission is to connect with them, unlock their potential, and give them the tools to personally thrive and contribute to the well-being of their families, their communities, and their country.
It’s not lost on me that on Monday, January 15, we celebrate the holiday in honor of Dr. King, a courageous leader who honored America’s values by urging us to live up to them. When someone laments that we have too many immigrants from Haiti and El Salvador and not enough from Norway, there’s only one word for it.
Trump is attempting to dismantle our hard-won progress brick by brick, to advance his own white supremacist agenda. He is not likely to change; he sees nothing wrong with who he is. But we, my friends, are better than this. Our nation is better than this. This is not about politics. This is about basic humanity.