With Domestic Terrorism in Charlottesville, Va., Betsy DeVos Fails to Recognize a Teachable Moment

Betsy DeVos (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

President Donald Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos didn’t wholeheartedly renounce white supremacy over the weekend, but teachers must.


James Alex Fields Jr., the driver who allegedly plowed into a crowd of counterprotesters in Charlottesville, Va., on Saturday, killing one and injuring at least a dozen more, had spouted Nazi ideology in high school, according to Derek Weimer, Fields’ former history teacher.


Weimer did not manage to derail Fields’ hateful beliefs, but this is a challenge facing many more teachers as hate groups, emboldened by the election of President Donald Trump, increasingly come out into the open.

We educators must be more prepared than Trump and DeVos.

As schools open across the country in the coming days, it is our responsibility as teachers to begin with an authentic history lesson of the United States and to participate in a national conversation on race, bigotry and the future of our communities.


What is past is prologue. The racism and xenophobia that we saw on the University of Virginia campus was born out of America’s historical endorsement of slavery, segregation, discrimination and biased policies. Hundreds marched with tiki torches, chanting “White lives matter” on Friday, and a riot ensued the next day.

The White House’s reluctance to condemn white supremacy and racism shows just how far we’ve progressed (which is to say, not much). Those who used the #ThisIsNotUs hashtag in the aftermath of the neo-Nazi, “alt-right,” Ku Klux Klan march could not be more wrong.


I assume that those who posted it on social media were trying to diminish the hundreds of people who descended on the town as an aberration, and showing solidarity in a careful way with those whom racism harms. All of which is more evidence that schools are clearly failing our students and society at large.

Jelani Cobb, the New Yorker columnist, tweeted:


DeVos’ remarks have been much less insightful. She wrote a two-tweet response to the violence that read:


Her generic and woefully insufficient statement effectively sanitized the hate that neo-Nazis, Klan members and alt-right demonstrators put on full display as they shouted Nazi slogans such as “Sieg heil” and waved Confederate flags while carrying military gear. DeVos, the nation’s top teacher (clearly symbolic), failed the basic test of providing leadership to teachers, education officials and counselors on how to educate students out of bigotry, white supremacy and violence.


In an Associated Press story, DeVos said that Washington, D.C. (aka the federal government), has a responsibility to “set a tone.” But what tone did she set? Instead of unequivocally condemning the hateful and divisive ideology that was espoused by the neo-Nazi marchers, DeVos issued two bland tweets in the passive tense that proclaimed her disgust with the behavior and rhetoric that was displayed (by whom? against whom?) and even managed to include a qualification that all Americans should be able to speak their minds.

Effective educators name, describe and identify—no matter how painful it is to look hatred in the face—the conditions that students, teachers and families must face.


DeVos is not ready to lead, and her response proves it anew. From the opening bell of her confirmation hearings to her nonstatement on Charlottesville, DeVos continues to show that she cannot be the education secretary our country deserves and so desperately needs.

In this way, she mirrors her boss, whose initial statements were criticized by many for being vague and weak, but the public’s outcry backed Trump into revising his statement and delivering a speech on Monday (although it probably should have been given before this planned hate march took place). DeVos, however, has yet to offer a more robust denouncement or any further guidance for teachers.


The people who are targeted by hate groups are stepping forward, since DeVos and Trump have failed to step up. Melinda Anderson, who writes for the Atlantic and is a member of the collaborative EduColor, started the hashtag #CharlottesvilleCurriculum, through which teachers and education support groups are providing resources to help teachers at this critical time.


One of the best sources of information posting to the hashtag is the nonprofit Teaching Tolerance, which provides free resources to teachers, administrators, counselors and other practitioners. The organization has been helping teachers educate for a diverse democracy for years.

I have to assume that Trump’s and DeVos’ slowness in naming racism reflects either that they don’t know that white supremacy is supported by “fake news” and bigoted, politically driven and unscientific ideologies—or that they believe in them. Neither is acceptable.


Trump and DeVos are failing our students. Charlottesville was their teachable moment, and they failed the test. How we teach in the aftermath of Charlottesville can be a bright footnote in the sordid history of American bigotry or it can be just more of the same.

We can’t hide the past, but we can educate our way out of it. We just need the right teachers to do it.


This story was produced by the Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education, in partnership with The Root. 

Share This Story

Get our newsletter

About the author

Andre Perry

Dr. Andre Perry, a contributing writer, is a David M. Rubenstein Fellow at The Brookings Institution. His research focuses on race and structural inequality, community engagement and education.