The blow-up last week during Michael Cohen’s public hearing brought racism sharply into focus, and an old trope — the “black friend defense” — was thrust into the spotlight. Teachers should capitalize on the event and help students grasp the complexity of racism. We can start by debunking the myth that a person can’t be racist because they “have a black friend,” keep company with black people or praise a black person.
Chairman Elijah Cummings (D-MD), an African-American serving his thirteenth term in the House, presided over a heated exchange between Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC) and Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) that offered a glimpse into American racism.
Meadows invited Lynne Patton, a black woman who works in the Trump Administration, to stand witness at the hearing as he made the case that the president is not racist. Tlaib felt Patton was being used “as a prop” and she publicly stated that she thought Meadow’s actions were racist. Meadows was insulted by Tlaib’s characterization, and Chairman Cummings intervened to move the proceedings forward.
In hearings wrought with relevant educational topics, racism stood out as the subject students need to examine more than any other national problem. We need to equip students with the skills and knowledge to spot racism and think about situations from different perspectives.
Unpacking racism in the classroom
Meadow’s defense of Trump stood in stark contrast to Cohen’s testimony that Trump’s racism is even worse in private than what the public has observed.
To further his claim that Trump is not racist, Meadows added that he has never heard the president say racist things in more than 300 private conversations. Meadows said about Patton, “She came in because she felt like the president of the United States was getting falsely accused, and Mr. Chairman, you and I have a personal relationship that’s not based on color. And to even go down this direction is wrong.”
For student exploration and discussion: What direction do you think Meadows is referring to in his statment? Is it wrong to go down this direction, as Meadows claimed? Who should get to decide the direction of a conversation about race in America?
Poet Nayyirah Waheed wrote,
they do not see color.
you are invisible.
What do you think this poem means? How can this poem help us understand racism and the American conversation about race?
Rep. Meadows was defending Trump against accusations that he is racist. Students should weigh the public comments made by Donald Trump and examine his actions to determine the validity of the criticism that President Trump is racist.
Teacher Tip: Consider starting your lesson by identifying racism not associated with Donald Trump or other well known contemporary figures. The goal is to gain a deeper understanding of racism and recognize it in different forms. It may be useful to scaffold so you have a better foundation for respectful and meaningful dialogue.
To many people, Cohen’s testimony is merely a first-hand account of the racism on public display in conjunction with Trump’s Charlottesville reaction, the birther allegations about President Obama and his call to execute five black teens, know as the Central Park Five. Trump’s detractors point to many examples of his racism.
Others may be inclined to defend President Trump, claiming that his opponents misconstrue his words and actions. Michael Cohen’s testimony that the president is a racist deserves scrutiny. Cohen is a convicted felon who admitted to perjury and spent ten years as Trump’s most fervent and loyal supporter.
A careful review of Mark Meadows record is also pertinent to this conversation. Meadows has made racist public comments about sending President Obama “back to Kenya.” It is also true that Meadows is friends with African-Americans, including Rep. Cummings, and he has relatives that are “people of color” as he stated.
For student exploration: Is there a distinction between racist behaviors and being a racist? In American society, who gets to decide what is considered racist and who is considered racist?
The following parts of the Cohen hearing raise fundamental questions that students should explore:
From Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) to Mr. Cohen: “Would you agree that someone could deny rental units to African-Americans, led the birther movement, refer to the diaspora as ‘sh*t-hole countries,’ refer to white supremacists as ‘fine people,’ have a black friend, and still be racist?
For student exploration and discussion: What is Rep. Pressley referring to with this line of questioning? What connections can you think of that might help people understand her point?
From Rep. Tlaib: “Just because someone has a person of color, a black person working for them, does not mean they aren’t racist…that someone would actually use a prop, a black woman in this chamber, in this committee, is alone racist in itself.”
For student exploration and discussion: What examples support Tlaib’s point? How would you defend the decision to bring Patton to the hearing to serve as an example of someone who supports the president?
Michael Cohen said the following about Donald Trump in his prepared testimony: “Donald Trump is a racist. The country has seen Mr. Trump court white supremacists and bigots. You have heard him call poorer countries ‘shitholes.’ In private, he is even worse. He once asked me if I could name a country run by a black person that wasn’t a ‘shithole.’ This was when Barack Obama was President of the United States. While we were once driving through a struggling neighborhood in Chicago, he commented that only black people could live that way. And, he told me that black people would never vote for him because they were too stupid.”
For student exploration and discussion: How do allegations like the ones Cohen presents contribute or detract from our national conversation about racism? How do you view Cohen’s statements? How does it make you feel to hear these allegations about the President of the United States? What are the most important steps to healing our nation as it relates to bigotry and racism?
Teachers are in a position to lead
We need to engage in the messy work of understanding racism at our kitchen tables and in our classrooms. When I taught high school American Government, I used the term, recovering racist when referring to the evolution of people who enter the fray and face difficult realizations about race. The recovering part happens as people become vulnerable and change their views. People are capable of conceding their old thinking. By acknowledging the truth and avoiding the harmful act of shaming students, teachers model compassion. (While some behaviors may be shameful, students themselves are not)
Today’s high school seniors have been witness to a national conversation about race and ethnicity that includes Trayvon Martin, Ferguson, Missouri, the travel ban, the Keystone XL pipeline, the birther movement, Colin Kaepernick, the border wall controversey and Charlottesville. It’s past the time to get real.
For students who missed an invitation to weigh in, now is a perfect time for educators to actively guide students to explore these crucial topics with care, honesty, and curiosity. Intentionally working toward understanding and gaining from multiple perspectives about racism is more beneficial than the comfort of silence. Talented teachers who skillfully navigate critical social issues with students and tie it back to curriculum objectives and learning deserve our praise.
Our willingness to engage in difficult conversations in our nation’s high school and university classrooms will be our greatest asset moving forward. The teaching expertise involved in tackling our nation’s most significant challenges requires a remarkable degree of professionalism, respect, and empathy.
Done right, classroom cultures that promote diversity and encourage critical thinking are fertile ground for a healthy democracy to blossom. We need to teach our students how to recognize racism, call it out and understand the impact.