by Eric J. Weiner
If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck,
then it’s probably a duck.
Over the course of two days in early September, the Trump administration quietly formalized its commitment to the ideology of white supremacy within the context of schooling and public education. In two separate but parallel moves, both of which would have made Senator Joe McCarthy proud, Trump announced that the Department of Education (DOE) would investigate public schools to determine if they were using the Pulitzer-Prize winning curriculum, The New York Times’ “1619 Project” while also decreeing that federal employees would no longer receive professional development education about white privilege from the perspective of Critical Race Theory (CRT). If the DOE discovers that schools are using the 1619 Project, Trump has promised, regardless of whether he has the authority to do so, to defund those schools. In spite of the enormous support the 1619 Project has received from educators, intellectuals, and many (but not all) historians, Trump has declared the curriculum “un-American” and a form of anti-American propaganda. The 1619 Project’s goal “to reframe American history by considering what it would mean to regard 1619 as our nation’s birth year [thereby placing] the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are as a country” could only be considered “un-American” by those refusing to acknowledge the historical record: The culture and ideology of white supremacy was foundational and fundamental to the Nation’s birth and history. There is nothing more American than the ideology of white supremacy and Trump’s attempt to declare the 1619 Project “un-American” shows that it is not going away without a fight. With Trump as white supremacist cheerleader, America’s historic connection to the culture and ideology of white supremacy is front and center for the world to see.
In addition to Trump’s promise to investigate and defund schools, John Vought, the Director of the Office of Management and Budget, released a memo from the Executive Office of the President which decreed that “All [federal] agencies are directed to begin to identify all contracts or other agency spending related to any training on ‘critical race theory’ [and] ‘white privilege,’” two foci of federal workforce professional development that the administration deems to be “divisive, anti-American propaganda. “These types of ‘trainings,'” Vought writes, “not only run counter to the fundamental beliefs for which our Nation has stood since its inception, but they also engender division and resentment within the Federal workforce.” He fails to mention, of course, that in addition to “fundamental beliefs,” our Nation has stood on the backs and necks of people of color since its inception. He goes on to say that Critical Race Theory (CRT) and educational programs that problematize white privilege and the ideology of white supremacy are really teaching students that white people are “inherently racist or evil” and that the country is “inherently racist and evil.” 
CRT, unknown to many outside of academia but the focus of the administration’s censorious memo, advances a complex accounting of how power, race, and ideology converge to create inequities of opportunity and outcome between white people and people of color. Drawing from the fields of sociology, history, cultural studies, political science, anthropology, linguistics, social/psychology, philosophy, and education, CRT provides us with important insights into the hegemony of white supremacy in America. The term white supremacy is being used instead of racism because, as Frances Lee Ansley explains,
By ‘white supremacy’ I do not mean to allude only to the self-conscious racism of white supremacist hate groups. I refer instead to a political, economic and cultural system in which whites overwhelmingly control power and material resources, conscious and unconscious ideas of white superiority and entitlement are widespread, and relations of white dominance and non-white subordination are daily reenacted across a broad array of institutions and social settings.
People who might find CRT anti-American and divisive are those whose allegiance is to the culture and ideology of white supremacy. Notions of “inherent evil” never appear in the serious scholarship that has come out of the CRT tradition. At its heart, it is a constructivist theory; that is, it locates meanings within historical contexts and as articulations of power. To suggest that CRT regards the USA as “inherently evil” doesn’t warrant comment. Does CRT represent the USA as inherently racist is a more legitimate question. From slavery and education to healthcare and the economy, it does interrogate the Nation’s deep racist structures. Are these structures “inherent”? If what Vought means by “inherent” is that it is a “permanent and essential” component of US society, then no, CRT does not argue that anyone or any Nation is inherently racist.
The very nature of CRT’s project remains committed and grounded in the goal of racial justice. Its project would be incoherent if it regarded people or nations “permanently and essentially” racist. Indeed, the educational dimension of CRT rejects this idea of inherent racism explicitly. Why teach or design anti-racist curriculum or anti-racist pedagogies if there is no chance of creating change? But Vought’s memo, like Trump’s racist rant against the 1619 Project, is not a reasoned argument based in facts, but simply white supremacist propaganda intended to persuade white people (and others) that CRT and any education that wants people to think critically about white privilege and the culture and ideology of white supremacy is un-American.
Against the administration’s white supremacist propaganda, the fundamental role the culture and ideology of white supremacy plays in US history is not controversial. What is controversial is Trump’s attempt (with the GOP’s support) to erase its fundamental role in the birth of the Nation and formally implement this erasure into the official curriculum. What is controversial is Trump’s open support for white supremacist hate groups. What is controversial is his denial of “white privilege” and how it shaped his past and continues to condition his current experiences as a white male. His denial of white privilege is consistent with how the culture and ideology of white supremacy works; both provide white people opportunities for no other reason than the color of their skin, while giving them the authority to deny that these opportunities exist. According to Trump in his recently recorded interview with Bob Woodward, the only people that could possibly believe that white privilege actually exists must have “really drank the Kool-Aid.” The culture and ideology of white supremacy has the power to turn reality upside down. Trump as a spectacle of white supremacist power makes that upside down world, like in the Netflix series Stranger Things, dangerous, violent, menacing, and seemingly impervious to being held accountable to widely held standards of truth and morality.
As armed militias of white men flying Trump 2020 flags—“GREAT PATRIOTS,” tweets Trump—violently confront people peacefully protesting systemic racism in cities and towns across the United States, Trump is all in on his expansive “Southern Strategy”—now a “Nationalist Strategy”—to codify the struggle against white supremacy as anti-American. This means pitting working class whites against working class blacks and frightening the white suburban and exurban middle-classes with representations that could have been pulled right out of D. W. Griffith’s white supremacist fantasy the Birth of a Nation. Trump’s Nationalist Strategy makes George H.W. Bush’s Willie Horton ad from 1988 look like child’s play. His administration, with explicit support from the GOP and flaccid push-back from Democrats, has thrown its full support, in the form of state sanctioned violence and incendiary propaganda, against Black Lives Matters and other allied movements for justice in an effort to embolden white people, people from South and Central America, and Asians who are threatened by the recent protests and are struggling to understand their place alongside a radicalized black community fed up with systemic racism in our police, military, workspaces, government, financial institutions, and schools.
Consistent with Trump’s respect and admiration for white supremacy in the past, these two educational moves directly and without ambiguity formalize the administration’s allegiance to the ideology of white supremacy and its commitment to support its reproduction through education and schooling. Beyond the “dog whistles,” ambiguous rhetoric, and cryptic twittering, we now have an official document from the Office of the President which states its white supremacist educational agenda as well as a declarative promise from Trump to investigate and defund schools that use the 1619 Project’s curriculum. Both of these actions support the schooling of white supremacy within federal agencies and our public schools by policing curriculum and pedagogies that challenge the culture and ideology of white supremacy, the discourse of white privilege, and, more generally, teach against the grain of the “official” historical record. As Stanley Aronowitz said in a different context, “The hidden curriculum isn’t so hidden anymore.” Through these educative actions, the administration has moved from accepting the more passive mis-education of our young people through various “liberal” curricular initiatives about slavery and racism, to a full-throated attack on history itself.
These two curricular and pedagogical actions signal Trump’s understanding of schools, education and training as significant components of cultural and political power. Unlike many liberals, Trump seems to understand that schooling is a cultural practice; it functions as a force of socialization, “meaning-making,” memory construction, and ideological reproduction. Unlike liberals who endlessly call for neutrality in education, bending over backwards to find “equivalences” so as not to be accused of liberal bias, the GOP and Trump, like progressive and critical educators before them, recognize the power of schooling to shape memory, legitimate historical narratives, habituate thoughts, and condition behavior.
Through a combination of pedagogical practices, curricular designs, and assessment protocols, schools themselves have an enormous impact on the culture of which they are a part. They are not simply mirrors that reflect and reproduce some imagined neutral representation of reality that is disconnected from state and corporate power. They have always been what Louis Althusser called Ideological State Apparatuses. The call for neutrality in education is simply a way to hide ideological bias. As the historian Howard Zinn famously said, “You can’t be neutral on a moving train.” Right now, the train is traveling toward a kind of 21st century “neoliberal fascism” at Mach speed. Henry Giroux, Chair for Scholarship in the Public Interest and The Paulo Freire Distinguished Scholar in Critical Pedagogy at McMaster University explains:
This defense of neutrality has always seemed to me to be the basis for a kind of fascist politics because it hides its code for not allowing people to understand the role that education plays ideologically, in producing particular forms of knowledge, of power, of social values, of agency, of narratives about the world… It is impossible for education to be neutral so those who argue that education should be neutral are really arguing for a version of education in which nobody is accountable. The people who produce that form of education become invisible because they are saying it’s neutral. So, you can’t identify the…modes of power at work. That is precisely what they want, because power at its worst makes itself invisible, and the notion that education is neutral is one way for people who have dominant power of making it invisible and making propaganda itself incapable of being seen.
In Trump’s brave new world, educators must become aware of some of the vile consequences of taking a position against the culture and ideology of white supremacy and other “interlocking systems of oppression” in their classrooms. Because we can’t stay neutral on a moving train, educators can be part of the solution or remain silent and be part of the problem. But teachers must be prepared for push-back from students, parents, and administrators that are allied, explicitly or passively, with the culture and ideology of white supremacy. Push-back comes in many disciplinary forms, some more harmful and devastating than others. These include disciplinary “write-ups” that can threaten future promotions; “unofficial” conversations in which teachers are warned by administrators that parents and students don’t like how they teach or what they are teaching; dismissal from the job; angry and hostile letters to administration; and poor course evaluations by disgruntled students who are either explicitly aligned with the culture and ideology of white supremacy or have been taught to believe that when a teacher does not take a position against white supremacy and other interlocking systems of oppression, then the education they are receiving is neutral. In a twist on disciplinary logic, if a teacher receives one or more of these responses from parents, students, and/or administrators, they are probably doing something right.
Case in point, I recently received this anonymous comment on a course evaluation: “Dr. Weiner is a self-hating white male who established and created a racially hostile environment the entire semester. Every class was another session in grievance mongering and racial and gender-based identity politics.” This comment, written anonymously by a student in a recent course evaluation, let’s me know, unintentionally of course, that I’m doing something to upset the hegemony of white supremacy and patriarchy. The course was designed to educate future educational leaders about the historic role of public intellectuals in various social movements and to begin to think about what their own role might be as future public intellectuals. As such, the course confronted various social and educational ills head-on. From racism and white supremacy to patriarchy and economic oppression, students grappled with how they could help create change where they thought it was needed. Staying neutral in the face of these violent systems of exploitation, as Zinn and Giroux make clear, is simply not possible.
Even though the student remains technically anonymous, because the class was only ten students, I know who wrote it (Note: I use ambiguous pronouns when referring to the student to protect her/his identity). Throughout the seminar, the student was sarcastic, profane, angry, aggressive, condescending, generally disrespectful to the other students in the class, and particularly hostile to the one African-American student in the class. The student tried to hide her/his racism and sexism behind endless appeals to “facts” that s/he thought were more important than the reasons behind them. Cynicism replaced critical inquiry as the student’s modality of analysis. Through an endless stream of inane wiki-information and googled facts, s/he tried unsuccessfully to veil her/his profound ignorance (i.e., a refusal to know) about how systems of thought, ideology, identity, and, more fundamentally, power and language, function in everyday life. The fact that this student is also a teacher makes her/his allegiance to white supremacy and patriarchy that much more frightening. Nevertheless, in the spirit of radical love I showed this student, as did the other members of the seminar, concern for her/his learning and respect for her/his ideas, regardless of the student’s unpleasantness or how inconsistent her/his ideas were to an ethic of care and tolerance.
I posted a response to this student’s comments in an email to the entire class. In it I say that I am not, nor have I ever been, a self-hating white man, but I am fully committed as an educator to helping dismantle the ideologies of white supremacy and patriarchy. These two interlocking systems are incompatible with democracy specifically and, more generally, any society that is trying to be humane and ethical. It should go without saying, but in today’s upside down world it’s necessary to reiterate the obvious: To teach against the grain of white supremacy and patriarchy is not to teach students to hate white people or men. Both men and white people can and should be morally offended by patriarchy and the culture and ideology of white supremacy because both are incompatible with a functioning democracy and cause unnecessary pain and suffering to millions of people. Men and white people, together with women and people of color, must also be working to establish an alternative human ecology, one that is not based on what bell hooks calls an “ethic of domination.”
In my email to the class, I also point out how this student’s perception of the seminar’s online environment as racially insensitive made her/him the only person in the class that described it in those terms. More specifically, all of the other students in the seminar made it a point to describe the class in their course evaluations as unusually open, nurturing, supportive of difference, mutually respectful, deeply dialogical, loving, intellectually and emotionally challenging, and, in a few cases, transformative. I concluded my comments by acknowledging that I could understand how a misogynist and/or white supremacist might indeed find a class that is ethically constrained by principles of fairness, equity, intellectual rigor, and justice a hostile environment. Moreover, I said I understood how a misogynist and/or white supremacist might experience critical interrogations of the structures and ideology of white supremacy and patriarchy as a personal attack. One of the interesting contradictions that is revealed in this student’s comments is that white supremacists and those whose allegiance lay with the patriarchy don’t typically want to acknowledge that these systems exist, yet at the same time feel threatened when these systems are unveiled, challenged and held accountable to the misery they cause women and people of color.
Weaponizing course evaluations in an effort to undermine academic freedom and derail democratic education is nothing new. What is new is the explicit support white supremacists and misogynists are getting from the White House. Trump is correct when he says that this election is for the heart and future of the country. He is also correct when he recognizes the power of curriculum and teaching to condition the minds and bodies of students. He knows that education and schooling are always political and he is willing to leverage their semiotic and educative power in the service of his particular dystopian vision for the country’s future. He wants to return to a time when white people did not have to share power with people of color, when people of color were subservient to whites, and when women were, first and foremost, looked upon as objects of male sexual desire and domestic help. Educators are on the front line of the battle against these dystopian attitudes. In this context, teachers as “emergency workers” takes on a new meaning.
The last thing I will say is that critical educators have a responsibility to reframe the racial equation for people aligned with the culture and ideology of white supremacy. We won’t always be successful, but winning can’t be a precondition for engagement. This means recognizing how and why the culture and ideology of white supremacy provides comfort and security to a large swath of white America. This is something that Trump and the GOP understand all too well. Beyond the members of “hate groups,” who I don’t believe, generally speaking, can be taught to unlearn their hatred, white America is afraid, as white America has always been afraid. Whether it’s because they understand that there will be some kind of payback for centuries of pain, or because they know deep down that they really don’t deserve the privileges their skin provides, or because they have been indoctrinated to believe that people of color are fundamentally different than themselves, or they don’t believe people of color are really experiencing as much violence and pain as they say they are living in America, white America needs to be given the tools to reframe their relationship to black America. They won’t come to it on their own.
Myles Horton, co-founder of the Highlander Folk School, has an important insight drawn from his experience working within a racially integrated school at the height of Jim Crow in the south. He recalls an incident in which white and black farmers were at the school to problematize and strategize about corporate farming and its harmful effects on local farmers and their ability to remain solvent. Two white farmers, when they saw a group of black men at the school said to Horton, “What are they doing here?!” Even though Horton knew what these white farmers meant in their question, he responded by asking the white men if the men they were referring to were not farmers. Horton said that if they were not farmers he would make sure they were asked to leave as the school was just open to farmers that day. The white men “re-looked” upon the black men as Horton sauntered off. Yes, it appeared they were farmers. They spent the rest of the day working together to try to resolve their common problems. In the simplest terms, Horton helped the white farmers “reframe” their relationship to the black farmers by getting them to see beyond race and into a world in which their shared class interests mattered more than their racial differences.
Although never easy and on occasion life-threatening, Horton’s work at Highlander during the labor struggles of the 30s and 40s and the Civil Rights movement of the 50s and 60s, shows the possibilities of a critical education in reframing white people’s perception not just of black people, but of themselves as well. Currently, and as part of the Nationalist Strategy, Trump and the GOP are defining what it means to be white in America. It means to be afraid, angry, suspicious, insecure, and ill-equipped, in theory and practice, to find common concerns across racial, religious, sexual, and gendered lines. Horton’s work at Highlander provides a model of critical pedagogy that can confront the culture and ideology of white supremacy that is officially working its way into our systems of education and schooling with a force not seen in decades. I hope we can, together, stop this train.
 There were some dissenting opinions within the historical community, namely a letter published by four noted historians–James McPherson, Gordon Wood, Victoria Bynum, and James Oakes—that took issue with both the historical facts presented in the Project as well as its general approach to the constructions of Historical narrative. Of course, there is also significant support for how the Project “thinks History.” To my knowledge, the contested historical facts have been clarified or edited to be consistent with general historical consensus. See https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2019/12/historians-clash-1619-project/604093/?gclid=Cj0KCQjw-uH6BRDQARIsAI3I-UdMuuN_9e4y9oNoSXyBCvUcbOGYLD9mS_9iS71B_eoHt-d7qYoNjdsaAv7hEALw_wcB and also https://pulitzercenter.org/lesson-plan-grouping/1619-project-curriculum
 Stanley Aronowitz. The Knowledge Factory. Boston: Beacon Press, 2001.
 See https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/henry-a-giroux-and-the-culture-of-neoliberal-fascism/; also, https://3quarksdaily.com/3quarksdaily/2019/10/thinking-dangerously-henry-girouxs-the-terror-of-the-unforeseen.html