Bethune-Cookman University students were right to boo Betsy DeVos

City Paper

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos got booed yesterday when she tried to speak  at historically black Bethune-Cookman University’s commencement in Daytona Beach, Florida on Tuesday. About half of the 380 graduates at the 86-year old historically black university turned their backs on her when she began speaking. The booing came later and then, the school’s president Edison O. Jackson went into scolding parent mode, telling graduates that they’d have to wait to receive their diplomas if they didn’t settle down.

He should have been proud. Those students are clearly more prepared to stand up for something than most members of Congress and weren’t ok with being used as props by DeVos, or anyone else in the Trump administration.

DeVos got the reception she deserved. The whole point of public education is that (theoretically) resources are spread equally to all students, regardless of background or income. DeVos wants to change that. She has spent decades as a wealthy proponent of charter schools and vouchers—options for school choice that, on their face, sound great, but often leave poor kids and kids of color behind: “In districts that participate in choice, white and more affluent parents have fled as poorer, minority kids have come into their schools, exacerbating de facto segregation,” wrote Stephen Henderson, editorial page editor of the Detroit Free Press last year.

That means that, if DeVos gets her way, it’ll be harder for black students, like the ones graduating yesterday, to even make it to college.

It’s no secret at this point that the Trump administration loves a good photo op, especially featuring a black person (hi, Kanye) and there was an uproar a few months ago when the leaders of historically black colleges, including Bethune Cookman’s Jackson and Morgan State’s David Wilson, were photographed in the oval office surrounding the smiling president. The leaders said that they had been invited for a listening session, but that photo was the only tangible thing they got. Not long after, Trump issued an executive order that voiced support for HBCUs but which also omitted tangible funding sources. And Trump released a statement last week indicating that he didn’t even think HBCU funding was constitutional—a kind of “why isn’t there a White History month”-style take that the White House later hastened to walk back.

After that same meeting with HBCU presidents, DeVos issued a statement saying that historically black schools were borne out of educators who identified “a system that wasn’t working” and working “to provide a solution,” twisting charter school rhetoric surrounding “choice” until it applies schools were borne out of necessity. There simply wasn’t anywhere else for black students to go if they wanted to get an education.

There is not a lot of money for HBCUs, and maybe Jackson thought that he had an obligation to kiss a few rings, no matter how distasteful it may be. Today, however, the Florida NAACP is calling for his resignation and the video of him shushing graduates in their caps and gowns just makes him look foolish. How is this worth it?

The incident with DeVos, after all, came less than 24 hours after Trump fired F.B.I. Director James Comey. It has only been a few months of the Trump regime, but it feels like an eternity. The fact that people are still fighting back is a good thing and it’s not surprising that mostly minority graduates would be the ones to take such a public stand. Black people have always been on the chopping block, always leading the #resistance, even as white America is just now beginning to grasp what it means to be lied to and to experience unjust treatment.

The boos that DeVos received Wednesday got especially loud when she indicated that she was going to visit the grave of one of the school’s founders, civil rights activist and educator Mary McLeod Bethune. Maybe not everything can be protected from the Trump administration, but for that day, the graduates drew a line in the sand. McLeod Bethune, a woman born to former slaves, who powerful and strong and educated in a time where she wasn’t supposed to be any of those things, was sacred.  

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