Charges of White Supremacy Lodged at Parents Who Want Schools to Re-Open

Illinois Superintendent and Washington School Board member accuse frustrated parents of racism and "white privilege"

I have heard a lot of ridiculous and ill-informed takes on the school reopening debate from people on both sides of the issue but the recent charges of white supremacy directed at parents in Pasco, Washington and Evanston, IL take the cake. Parents of all races have countless reasons for wanting (and needing) schools to re-open and they have every right to express their preferences to the people in charge. Every superintendent, principal, mayor and teachers’ union president in America is hearing from parents about schools, especially in places where the schools are not open. Only two that I’m aware of attributing parents’ growing frustration and anger to white supremacy.

Reasonable people can disagree on the reopening debate, though it is my belief that the evidence for re-opening is well established if mitigation protocols (masks, 6 foot spacing, podding) are followed. Some schools are crippled by staffing issues that makes it impossible for them to operate their buildings —I understand why they are closed though I have yet to see that problem attributed to spread of the virus in schools. My own kids go to school in-person whenever it is an option.

Does that make me a white supremacist? It appears that in the eyes of these two “educators”, the answer is yes.

It doesn’t matter that pediatricians and mental health professionals have been saying for many months that they are seeing a spike in emotional distress and suicidal ideation among school aged children that they largely attribute to isolation from teachers, friends and coaches. Scott Wilson, president of the Pasco Teachers’ Association in Washington said in a public meeting that the expression of concern over suicide risk due to school closures is “white privilege.” (He shared during those comments that he lost his own child to suicide.) Wilson also compared parents who prefer schools to open to those who breached the capitol building last week. (You can listen to him say it below—it wasn’t off the cuff. He read a prepared statement.)

Now meet Evanston, Illinois superintendent, Dr. Devon Horton. In response to emails from parents who questioned his leadership and expressed frustration over his decisions, Horton accused the parents of white supremacy.

Below is the exact text of the email (typos included) that he sent to both parents:

He signed both emails, “Unapologetically, Dr. Devon Horton.”

I must admit that when I read this I wondered if maybe the parents had actually used racial slurs or somehow made reference to Dr. Horton’s race in their emails. Unless something is missing from the reporting, they did not.

One email said this:

“Every other community and suburb has responded and found ways to make hybrid or full in-person models work carefully. District 65 and you personally should feel ashamed for your continued lack of action and appropriate choices. I’m certain that Evanston has a much higher contingent of high-risk youth than Wilmette, Glenview and every other north shore suburb yet we are the one community that has not even TRIED to get our kids back in school.”

The other email said this:

“There is such a void of leadership from you and the school board at this point that we are submitting our application for St. A's tonight for next school year. Our daughter, who cried when we told her we were considering it when she found out weeks ago, today told my wife ‘Mom, I am ok switching schools. I just want to be in-person.’ I am nearly certain we are not the only ones which will likely hurt the district's finances even further.”

I served on a school committee for two years and before that, sent many emails to my own superintendent that were often more strongly worded than these. I wouldn’t expect the Evanston superintendent to enjoy reading messages from unhappy parents and it’s certainly his prerogative to disagree with the sentiments—but his response is so over the line, it’s hard to believe he actually wrote it (and then sent it!) In many places his job would likely be in jeopardy but Evanston, IL isn’t most places. I do not know the race of the parents who sent these emails but I’m guessing they must be white. Would he have sent the same email if they weren’t? And what does he say to parents who feel this exact same way but aren’t white?

It is true that polling has consistently shown that black and Latino parents are less likely to want their kids to return to in-person schooling than white and Asian parents. I have written about why that it is here. But there are many black and brown parents who do want their kids back in school (and whose kids are back in school.) The assertion that wanting schools to open—especially when nearby towns are open—is a form of white supremacy and white privilege is a silencing tactic that has no place in a response from a superintendent to the families he serves.

The racial rhetoric of the union president and the superintendent is out of bounds. Both men made a deliberate decision to weaponize unfounded charges of racism and white supremacy in the hope that it will silence their critics. I hope that it does not.