It’s been hard for me to face the whole story explaining why my fellow Oklahomans have embraced Trumpism in general and, too often, his Secretary of Education appointee Betsy DeVos in particular. Even though my conservative state has an extreme record of corruption, we also had an ethic where a politician’s handshake had to be good; an individual’s word had to be true. We believed, “my opponent is my opponent, not my enemy.” In the contact sport of politics, elbows would be thrown, but you don’t take out your opponent’s knee.
Growing up in Oklahoma, I also learned something that I’m less proud of. Although I’ve committed my life to working within the system to make things better for the poorest children of color in Oklahoma City, there is another aspect of my upbringing. If a school reformer looked me in the eye and said what many do in their writing ― that I’m a racist because I try to work inside the education status quo ― I’d likely ask him to step outside.
Or I would have acted according to our code before Trump was elected. Now the stakes are too high to let personal emotion reign.
Even though I had registered in advance, there had been a minor protest against the summit’s agenda, and it took some Old School schmoozing to talk my way into the auditorium to see Dr. Steve Perry’s keynote address. Perry is the author of “Push Has Come to Shove: Getting Our Kids the Education They Deserve – Even If It Means Picking a Fight.” I sat down next to an old friend who supports charter and voucher expansion and we shook hands. I then listened, horrified, as Perry shouted insults, non-stop, during his entire presentation. Of course, I’ve seen videos of demagogues firing people up. As a kid too young to understand, I’d witnessed John Birch Society and George Wallace rallies. But, as an adult, I’d never seen anything as frightening as the way Perry worked the crowd.
To be honest, I’d come to listen to fellow audience members more than to a former charter school principal turned showman. I doubted that many in the crowd knew that Perry, the founder of Capital Preparatory Magnet School, is remembered for calling teachers unions “roaches,” for 49 tweets calling education historian Diane Ravitch a racist, and for controversial financial arrangements. Worse, his school would sentence “even the youngest students in the building, to sit at the cafeteria’s ‘Table of Shame.’”
Even worse, Perry had written that people should:
Drag sorry principals and teachers out into the street. Kick open the doors in our communities and collar lazy parents. Line ‘em all up on Main Street, snatch their pants down and show the entire world the ass that they have given our kids to kiss.”
Perry told the audience that charter supporters shouldn’t even talk with people who disagree with them. He said virtually nothing about real-world schools. Instead, Perry shouted memes that often were incomprehensible. He kept likening charters to the “red pill” in The Matrix, calling for an all-out assault on public schools full of deluded people who had swallowed the “blue pill.”
Perry said that that public school supporters “designed” schools to fail – to maintain Jim Crow and drive the school to prison pipeline. Even worse, Perry said that opponents of Oklahoma City’s KIPP expansion are racists. He said that people (like me) who have Obama bumper stickers but oppose charter and voucher expansions are as bad as the worst racists in American history.
Worst of all, the mostly white audience loved it. They loudly cheered Perry’s union-bashing and clearly enjoyed being characterized as civil rights crusaders attacking Obama-lovers whose real goal is defending an education system which was supposedly designed to perpetuate Jim Crow.
I was then dragged kicking and screaming into admitting that the crowd wouldn’t have been so open to the claim that we who disagree with them are evil if they weren’t hungry for that message. For reasons that have to be bigger than education reform, many of them must have already been ready for battle, and they craved the reassurance that they are righteous crusaders and their enemies deserve to be destroyed.
Afterwards, I asked the charter leaders who I know to distance themselves from Perry’s disgraceful rhetoric. I explained that the former charter principal hadn’t faced anything comparable to what we do in neighborhood schools. Five times I had had heart-to-heart talks with kids who were dead before morning. I lost track of the number of my kids who died prematurely or killed someone as the count passed fifty. I can’t try to recall the number of my hospital visits or my students’ funerals, or the number of times I had been covered with my students’ blood or cradled unconscious kids, sometimes without knowing if they were breathing. (I’d also learned that it could be easier to negotiate with gang-bangers [who often were armed] than true believers in competition-driven reform.)
Am I a racist because I don’t agree with Dr. Steve Perry?
I was offered an opportunity to confront Perry but I turned it down. I was afraid, but not of the possibility that my Oklahoma upbringing would reassert itself. I’m terrified that we are moving into a new era – one that is fundamentally worse than the scorched-earth politics embraced by corporate school reformers. I fear that Perry understands something about my community that I haven’t dared to confront. Demagogues like him don’t prosper without audiences who are ready for the extremist politics of destruction and the demonization of their neighbors.