DeVos May Be a Lot of Things But a White Supremacist Isn’t One of Them

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos recently found herself, per usual, swarmed by protesters at a recent appearance at Harvard. But something stood out in the crowd: a bedsheet emblazoned with the words “White Supremacist.” From Newsweek:
Controversial Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is a "white supremacist" who wants to protect on-campus rapists, several Harvard University protesters argued during her speech on the Cambridge campus Thursday.
Rick Hess of AEI subsequently weighed in:
First off, let's keep in mind that "white supremacist" is (and should be) an extraordinarily potent term: It's a word that has been used to denote truly execrable people, those who trade in racial hatred and fantasies of an ethnocentric hierarchy in which whites reign supreme. In the 19th and 20th centuries, white supremacy spawned fever dreams of "scientific racism," yielding the junk science of eugenics to justify discriminatory agendas rooted in claims of racial superiority. None of that describes DeVos. She has devoted thousands of hours and millions of dollars to fighting for her vision of educational betterment—especially for minority children in high-poverty communities. She may be wrong, but it'd be hard to make the case that her efforts are white supremacist. After all, even the probing, vicious, largely unprecedented coverage of her nomination never offered up any suggestion that DeVos has ever written or said anything to that effect.
Maureen Kelleher, my colleague at Education Post, sees it differently:
If we had no history of separate and unequal treatment of people of color in K-12 schools, would we need support from philanthropists like DeVos to make a dent in leveling the playing field?
Kelleher goes on:
As Rishawn Biddle points out, DeVos’ position on choice is a positive for her openness to leveling the playing field for young people of color. But overall, her decision to join the Trump administration, the rollback of civil rights investigations into excessive use of suspensions and expulsions, and her refusal to challenge her boss on the decision to end DACA all suggest she is at least a “willing collaborator” with people who are choosing to throw Black and Brown children under the bus.
Ok. First of all, I agree with much of what my colleague Maureen has to say. The color of Band-Aids, the Crayola color “flesh,” and the systemic racism that continues to plague our nation as a whole, including our schools, should have us all standing up and pushing back every day. But what I can’t and won’t abide is the defense of anyone who holds up a bed-sheet with the words “White Supremacist” to describe Betsy DeVos during an appearance on a college campus. I agree with Hess when he acknowledges that Betsy DeVos is and should be subject to criticism. Her stances on school choice and and the role of the Office of Civil Rights are controversial. I’ve heard–and made my own—arguments on both. Even her choice to serve as secretary of education has been the subject of heated debate because of the past and present comments, actions, and tweets of our current president. White Supremacists don’t spend their own money to better educate Black children. White Supremacists don’t work to ensure that Black parents have options when it comes to which school their child attends. And White supremacists don’t take a daily beating in the press, get shouted down at every event, and find themselves the victim of daily death threats only to return to work the next day so that Black children–and all children—are afforded more and better opportunities to be well educated, prepared for college and work, and set up for a rich and full life. Her support for vouchers and education savings account doesn’t make her a White supremacist. Or a religious zealot. It makes her one of the millions of Americans who—right or wong—happen to support private school choice. In fact, the systemic racism found in our educational system certainly cannot be laid at the feet of DeVos who only became a household name in the past year. For example, she certainly doesn’t support forced placements of 400 unwanted teachers into schools that predominantly serve poor Black and Brown children. Randi Weingarten, Diane Ravitch, and Jennifer Berkshire have all given silent support to the plan. Does that make them White supremacists too? Zip-code school assignment, fewer experienced teachers in low-income schools, forced placements, these realities are precisely what unequal treatment looks like. Where are the bedsheets emblazoned with “White Supremacist” for the powerful and well-funded people who conveniently fall silent—and even defend—the very inequitable practices embedded, often, by design, in our current system? I have great respect for my colleague, Maureen. And she and I have certainly had these discussions and debates in person. But any defense of calling Betsy DeVos a White supremacist is, for me, not only out of bounds but demonstrably out of sync with her chosen life’s work.
Erika Sanzi
Erika Sanzi is a mother of three sons and taught in public schools in Massachusetts, California and Rhode Island. She has served on her local school board in Cumberland, Rhode Island, advocated for fair school funding at the state level, and worked on campaigns of candidates she considers to be champions for kids and true supporters of great schools. She is currently a Fordham senior visiting ...

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