A recent cartoon by Conservative Glen McCoy shows newly-confirmed Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos being escorted by four faceless men in suits past a wall spray-painted with the graffito “Conservative.” DeVos was recently blocked from the front entrance of a school in Washington, D. C.
The cartoon’s historical reference is to Norman Rockwell’s “The Problem We All Live With,” which documented Ruby Bridges being escorted into a forcibly desegregated school in Louisiana in 1960. The wall behind her has a graffito of a word that had been used about this little girl by white parents resisting a Supreme Court ruling.
This is a false equivalence, a tool that seems to be used with increasing frequency by conservatives.
Liberals are supposed to be peaceful, and yet laugh when White National Richard Spencer gets sucker-punched. Liberals are supposed to be tolerant, and yet complain when people invoke religious values to refuse services. Liberals said nothing when Obama limited travel from certain countries, but wailed when Trump closed entry entirely from the same countries.
All those comparisons miss key differences but have varying levels of defensibility. McCoy’s false equivalence, meanwhile, is perhaps the most offensive and blatant.
In 1951, the NAACP identified Oliver Brown, who had a daughter in Topeka Public Schools, as the lead plaintiff in a complaint against the Board of Education of Topeka. At the time, the Topeka School District had segregated elementary schools. It took three years for this case, rolled in with several others, to be decided by the United States Supreme Court. Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote, “Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”
Despite the unanimous ruling of the Supreme Court, it took several more years for the states in the Jim Crow south to accept the decision. Ruby Bridges, the girl in Rockwell’s painting, was born several months after the SCOTUS ruling. Despite this, her first school was not in the all-white school in New Orleans that was five blocks from her home, but rather the segregated school that was miles away.
The NAACP convinced parents of black New Orleans students to take a placement exam that was being used to defend keeping black students out of “white” schools. Six students passed those tests, and Ruby Bridges was the first to attend school.
She was not welcomed with open arms. The day she showed up to school, the parents pulled most of the other children out. For her first year, she was alone with her teacher because the school worried about repercussions if she were put in a room with white children.
These incidents are not ancient history. Ruby Bridges was present when President Barack Obama hung Rockwell’s painting in the White House. School segregation was a cultural scar that persisted well after the 1954 SCOTUS ruling, and arguably still does.
Prior to painting “The Problem We All Live With,” Rockwell was known for his paintings of Americana, which graced the cover of “The Saturday Evening Post.” In these paintings, there were few persons of color depicted: America, in this vision, was nearly exclusively white.
Rockwell did sometimes paint people of color, but his contract with the magazine restricted his ability to do so. His complicity in the covert racism of a whitewashed America was been driven more by the artistic pragmatism of not offending his patron than by genuine racism on his part.
However, the title of his piece acknowledges that he was complicit. Unlike McCoy, Rockwell is not trying to create an “other” to blame. Racism is a problem we all live with, whether it’s the overt, violent racism of the Jim Crow south or the covert racism of White Middle America.
Donald Trump’s campaign slogan was “Make America Great Again,” which has lead minorities and the marginalized to wonder when America was ever great for them. Trump himself suggested that the last time America was great was during the “late ‘40s and ‘50s”: Ostensibly during the last period of America First entrepreneurship, but conveniently right before the Civil Rights movement gained real traction.
Prior to Virginia v. Loving (1967), when Trump’s America was great, states could ban interracial marriage. Prior to Brown v. Board of Education (1954), when Trump’s America was great, black children could be barred from white schools. Prior to the Fair Housing Act (1968), when Trump’s America was great, black people could be restricted from white neighborhoods. And prior to the Civil Rights Act (1964), when Trump’s America was great, black people could be barred from jobs, stores, or voting booths based on their skin.
I don’t know whether Trump himself feels that America was great when the law kept black people “in their place,” but for many people, that’s what his slogan and his choice of era suggest.
Betsy DeVos is a champion for charter schools. She has worked to channel funding away from public schools. Like me, she hails from Michigan. Michigan’s charter school system is one of the most corrupt in the country, due in part to pressure on the state from the DeVos family.
There is nothing inherently wrong with charter schools. When I first heard of the concept, as a high school student in 1984, I supported the idea of schools of choice. In an ideal world, charter schools would be testing grounds for educational innovation, and I laud those schools which stand up to that ideal.
Most charter schools, though, have become mediocre or even subpar conduits, underperforming even compared to their public school competition. Even more concerning is the role that charter schools are playing in resegregating education. Even supporters of charter schools tacitly acknowledge that segregation is an issue.
Ruby Bridges was a naïve little girl who was a pawn in a historic shift for a country that remains even today mired in racism. Betsy DeVos is a willing participant in a continued drive to shift public funds into a system that research consistently shows to be damaging education for students of color.
This is beyond a mere false equivalence: McCoy’s comparison is offensive on its face.
We can make America great, once and for all, for everyone. But this is not the way.
Originally published on The Good Men Project.