Teachers Can Respond to Trump’s Racial Hatred with Empathy and Inquiry

By the Editors of Rethinking Schools

By now, most of us have read of Trump’s vile and racist comments of last Thursday.

We all have a moral obligation to speak out against the sentiments uttered by the president, to reject the cruel policies he champions through such sentiments, and demand forthright opposition to his words and deeds by our elected representatives.

And in this struggle, teachers have a special obligation and opportunity to take sustained actions that inoculate young people against Trump’s racist poison and defend immigrant and refugee students who are vulnerable to his cruel words and policies.

In all of our classes, and especially in courses that engage issues of history, citizenship, current events, and cultural identity, we can forge a curriculum of empathy and intellectual engagement that pierces the politics of cruelty with inquiry into the realities of immigration and the social/political context within which it unfolds.

Such a curriculum might explore how the United States propped up dictators in El Salvador during a devastating civil war in the 1980s, forcing many to flee to the United States, and how NAFTA in the 1990s greatly increased rural poverty in Mexico, also driving many to seek jobs in our country. Or how the United States enforced a violent occupation of Haiti between 1915 and 1934, and recently how earthquake relief was skewed to benefit U.S. corporations. Or how boasts of American commitment to freedom and democracy were often belied in Africa by U.S. complicity with South African apartheid and support for bloody dictators.

In response to Trump’s demonization of immigrants and refugees as the source of drugs, crime, welfare abuse, and terrorism, a curriculum of empathy and intellectual engagement can help students discern important realities: the lower crime rate of immigrants compared to native-born citizens, the diligence of newcomers in finding jobs and contributing to our communities, and the lack of evidence that either immigrants or refugees pose a terrorist threat.

Trump’s remarks threaten to turn the United States toward an unusually dangerous era of racist xenophobia, but are not without presidential precedent. President George Washington razed Iroquois villages and enslaved hundreds of Black men, women, and children. Andrew Johnson ordered Union troops to seize the land of freed slaves and return it to white plantation owners. Woodrow Wilson segregated federal offices and showed the KKK-loving film, Birth of a Nation, in the White House. Calvin Coolidge signed the Immigration Act of 1924, designed to keep “American stock up to the highest standard” by excluding Southern/Eastern Europeans and Jews. Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Federal Housing Administration explicitly refused to support home loans to Black people. And the list goes on. Students need to understand Trumpism within the context of the enduring institutional racism that has shaped our history.

And teachers should look beyond our own classrooms. As we say in an editorial in our current issue, they can act with administrators and community members to make sure our schools are “fortresses of safety, warmth, and determination,” keen to protect students and families threatened by deportation, marginalization, and the general mobilization of fear and hate-saturated xenophobia spearheaded by Trump and his allies. We can initiate community efforts to promote “safe haven” policies that seek to safeguard schools from ICE raids, provide immigrant and refugee families with “know your rights” workshops, address the fears and prolonged stress of children whose parents may be deported, and take a public stand of solidarity with those targeted by the Trump administration.

Finally, to counter the politics of racial and xenophobic fear and hatred fanned by Trump, we can share realities and tell stories to our students that emphasize how our common humanity transcends borders. In 2010, Rethinking Schools editor Jesse Hagopian, his wife, and 1-year-old son were in Haiti when the earthquake struck, injuring and killing many thousands. They worked with others to save lives, witnessing devastation and terrible suffering. But in contrast to Trump’s image of a “shithole” people mired in crime, indolence, and incapacity, they witnessed this:

Neighbors carried neighbors who were missing limbs on top of doors for miles to get medical aid. People took shallow sips from plastic bottles so the water would nourish life for more people. Hundreds gathered in newly forged communities to sing songs, collectively raising the spirit of hope. . . . I witnessed the beauty and resilience of a people who had lost everything, but still found something to give to help save others.

As Jesse suggests, we can nurture the beauty and resilience of our own students in helping them see the beauty and resilience of those Trump despises.

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Photo credit: Haitian children jumping rope in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. (Spike Call/Released)