Devon Horton, the superintendent of Evanston/Skokie School District 65, is a witness to how difficult it is to achieve equity during a pandemic.
Horton, who is Black, decided that “Evanston schools would give students from marginalized groups first priority for seats for in-person learning and all other students would be taught remotely,” according to a Wall Street Journal article published Oct. 6.
During a Zoom meeting, the Journal reported, Horton said the decision was “about equity for Black and brown students, for special education students, for our LGBTQ students.”
His stance earned him scorn, death threats “from both residents and nonresidents of Evanston” — a college town, “home to many professors who work at Northwestern University, which hugs the shorelines of Lake Michigan,” where four years ago, “voters supported Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump by more than 10 to 1. Last year, the city created a first-in-the-nation reparations fund for Black residents.”
For its part, the District 65 school board wrote an open letter to the liberal Evanston community.
“When you challenge policies and protocols established to ensure an equitable experience for Black and brown students, you are part of a continuum of resistance to equity and desire to maintain white supremacy,” the board wrote, according to the Journal’s reporting.
That position, unsurprisingly, startled parents like Corinna Raimondo, a scientist from Italy and an adjunct professor at Northwestern. The Journal reported that Raimondo had started a petition urging the board to let all children return to school.
“I’m being told to just shut up,” Raimondo said, referencing the board’s response. “I don’t think that is right. Everybody should have the right to express an opinion.”
I’ve seen some version of Raimondo’s response quite a bit during this pandemic. I think these statements are harmful, but not because they’re critical of a school administrator’s ostensible attempt to ‘do equity.’ It’s how these kinds of critiques are framed that’s problematic.
Raimondo is essentially pitting her personal freedom versus equality; her negative rights (i.e., her right to free speech) against the district’s good-faith effort to address the fact that, as an institution, it has aided and abetted the moral crime of withholding from Black and brown people the positive right to an education.
The question I’d pose to Raimondo is if you feel that rights are so important to you, imagine those rights being taken away? In other words, imagine what it’s like to be Black. Black people have to live within a nexus of un-freedom all the time. It is our birthright.
We almost take it for granted that we don’t have the same rights as whites and we expect whites to go crazy when we so much as petition the government for a redress of grievances; that’s because America has conditioned white people for centuries to believe that their rights exist in inverse relation to the enforcement of rights for Blacks.
In the Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin, the historian Corey Robin traces this dynamic to its original form.
When former vice president and pro-slavery political theorist John Calhoun declared that the destruction of the evil institution would mean the destruction of “us as a people,” he was thinking of “individual men absorbed in the day-to-day experience of ruling other men and women,” Robin writes. “Take that experience away, and you destroyed not only the master but also the man — and the many men who sought to become, or thought they already were like, the master.”
That’s how the system of white supremacy operates to this day, centuries after slavery’s end. So much of our language of personal rights and personal freedom is simply a mask for Calhoun’s way of thinking (the pandemic pun is intended).
Unfortunately, too many people — white and Black — let themselves become bit players in this heinous system by pitting the cult of personal freedom (i.e., the freedom to go for what’s good for me and mine) against the common good. And the common good is only as robust as its most vulnerable parts, which include marginalized students in Evanston and Oak Park.
Now, more than ever, we all need to align ourselves with the needs and interests of the most vulnerable people in our society — racial minorities, the handicapped, the poor, the sick — because their particular present is always and forever our collective future.
I applaud what Horton is doing in principle, even though I’m not familiar with how that will work out in practice. And I think there may be valid criticisms of the plan and its execution. Please, have the debate.
But we have to stop talking as if, by attempting to do justice on behalf of a historically and systemically excluded minority or by prioritizing the common good, an institution is trampling on our personal rights. That kind of narrative glosses over other people’s suffering, invites white revanchism, plays into the conservative misappropriation of “freedom” and makes it impossible to reach healthy consensus.