Last year, I was invited to attend the Manoa Forum, a “gown to town” event that brings together academic and community leaders to discuss the prevailing issues of the day. While what happens at the forum is supposed to stay at the forum, I will unashamedly note that during one exercise, in response to a question about groups with which I identify, I extolled my solidarity with anti-racists in the South, especially those fighting against white supremacy in the city of my upbringing: Huntsville, Alabama.
My childhood was pastoral. As a precocious pre-teen, I spent my days playing sports with neighbors on the half-acre lawn my parents owned and scouring the forest behind our house for natural treasures. A macabre old graveyard that skirted the cotton field adjacent to our neighborhood prompted the fabrication of imaginary worlds within our own, as if the headstones and breathable textiles were linguistic bubbles in a narrative multiverse only the local children could translate.
Yet, I also remember the harbingers of hatred I would learn about later in life. Members of the Ku Klux Klan marching through a Native American powwow. Burning crosses. Dilapidated wooden shacks a few miles from my home in which some of my African-American classmates lived. My next-door neighbor discussing his fear that the n*****s moving into the area would denigrate the district.
Years later, those attitudes are still common in Alabama, a state that officially celebrates the birthday of Confederate General Robert E. Lee on the same day as Martin Luther King, Jr. (and gives Lee top billing). Thus Trump, whose presidency is a symptom of our nation’s inability to responsibly grapple with our problematic racial history. To ask whether or not Trump is racist is to focus on an incessant sneezing jag, when the real problem is the discriminatory coldheartedness congesting the corridors of the country’s socioeconomic institutions.
Shortly after the new year, I was asked to draft a bill to advance civic education in Hawaiʻi for Rep. Amy Perruso. Amy’s and my belief in democratizing public education long precedes her election as a state representative and my appointment as her office manager and policy wonk (see, for example, the Hawaiʻi State Teachers Associationʻs Schools Our Keiki Deserve report), so the bill writing was seamless. As I worked on the measure, I was reminded of the urgency to not just ensure educational equity for all students, but to use our schools as sites for political action, from which new visions of the future may be born.
When the bill was finished, Amy and I had a discussion about the primary purpose of education. Since the enactment of the now defunct No Child Left Behind program, the typical top answer has been “to prepare students for the workforce.” Without question, schools have an obligation to develop the skills essential for participation in the 21st century job market. None of those skills are meaningful, however, if they’re not used to shape a more just and equal society.
The principal purpose of education, and especially public education, I submit, is to equip students to determine and deliver the public good. Mathematics should not simply be a prerequisite for becoming an engineer, but a step toward employing the elements of design to build sustainable homes for all. Learning to code in computer science classes shouldn’t be seen as a move toward a lucrative job at Google, but as a means of acquiring the knowledge necessary to invent software that solves pressing social concerns, the way USC’s HEALER algorithm empowers homeless youth to protect themselves from the spread of HIV.
When speaking to civil rights activists in Alabama who had been beaten, literally, by law enforcement, Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “Truth crushed to earth shall rise again.” At that time, school desegregation remained a recently enacted Supreme Court mandate. Nearly six decades later, there are places where integration still feels like it is in its infancy, where racism remains the dominant thread in a fraying social fabric.
Maybe if we devote more energy–and funding–to educational initiatives that are unafraid to pose tough questions about our history, then the next generation will be better able to fashion a future in which Trumpian race baiting doesn’t exist. Maybe, in turn, the dignity demanded by MLK, his comrades, and their heirs in places like Huntsville can rise above the white rage that seeks to silence the song of struggle before the chorus fills too many freedom fighters with hope.