Betsy DeVos Isn’t 6 Years Old, Black, or in the 1960s

Disclaimer: This article contains graphic language.

On February 15, a political cartoonist falsely compared a protest hindering Secretary Betsy DeVos from entering a public school to protests hindering Ruby Bridges from attending a white school as a young black girl in 1960.

The protests Ruby and many others faced during the civil rights movement do not resemble those that DeVos has faced in the past weeks. The stigma and taboo of conservatism is far different from racism.

The only two things both the events have in common are that two people were prevented from entering a school; but the rest of the circumstances are completely different and not conveyed within the cartoon.

Glenn McCoy, a cartoonist for the Belleville News Democrat, created a cartoon based on Norman Rockwell’s painting “The Problem We All Live With.”

Credit: Norman Rockwell

The Problem We All Live With is a painting of 6-year-old Ruby Bridges surrounded by U.S. Marshals, which she needed to enter her school safely during a time where race relations were frayed. These tensions were heightened after the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, the case that declared segregated schools unconstitutional. As a result, black students attempting to enter white schools were faced with mobs and riots.

 On February 10, three days after DeVos was confirmed as the new secretary of education, she  was briefly prevented from entering Jefferson Middle School Academy in Washington D.C. due to protests.

The protests against her were rooted in her beliefs about education and her responses at the hearing, not in her conservatism and history with the Republican Party. And even if they were, it still would not matter because being  ostracized for conservative beliefs is not comparable to being ostracized for the color of your skin.

Ruby Bridges had to be escorted into school because of years of disgusting racism and false beliefs that black people are inferior. She was only six years old.

The responses on Twitter to the cartoon, therefore, are not surprising.

McCoy responded directly on the Belleview News-Democrat Facebook page.

“My cartoon was about how, in this day and age, decades beyond the civil rights protests, it’s sad that people are still being denied the right to speak freely or do their jobs or enter public buildings because others disagree with who they are or how they think,” McCoy said. “I’m surprised that you see ‘hate’ in this cartoon when I thought I was speaking out against hate….The level of toxicity in today’s political climate has reached ridiculous levels.”

DeVos was not being denied the right to speak freely or enter public buildings because of her color. She is not experiencing the same form of “hate” that people of color experienced during the civil rights movement or even today.

Of course, there is something to be said about the protest preventing her from entering the school and the “level of toxicity in today’s political climate.” But equating the word “conservative” to the racial slur “nigger” is simply not correct. DeVos is a white woman who has grown up with immense privilege.

Additionally, the protest she faced was minuscule compared to the protests black students faced when they entered white schools. It is inappropriate to even suggest she is experiencing the same hatred black people experienced throughout this country’s history.

DeVos is the most controversial nominee for education secretary to date. The vote to confirm her required a tiebreaker from Vice President Pence. It was the closest vote over a cabinet secretary in U.S. history.

Other nominated education secretaries passed through the Senate with flying colors, with the exception of John B. King who had a vote of 49-40

Past education secretaries have had experience working in the public school system or at least going to one, while DeVos has no such experience.

The controversy surrounding her confirmation is not uncalled for. The initial concern with her nomination is that she has little experience with public schools, as she has never attended one or worked in one. Her experience is with school choice, a policy that Trump himself supports strongly. She also failed to adequately answer many of the questions posed during her hearings.

“This woman has less knowledge about public education than almost anyone who has any interest at all in education,” Sen. Al Franken said on January 31, the day that DeVos was scheduled to have another hearing. “Yes, she’s been involved in education but it’s been about her ideology.”

DeVos’s ideology is summed up in a speech that she made in 2015.

“We must open up the education industry — and let’s not kid ourselves that it isn’t an industry — we must open it up to entrepreneurs and innovators,” she said. “This is how families without means will get access to a world-class education. This is how a student who’s not learning in their current model can find an individualized learning environment that will meet their needs.”

DeVos aspires to use tax dollars to support businesses that she is invested in, create alternative schools to fill the individualized need of a student, rather than focusing on making public schools successful for everyone. It is also concerning that she believes schools should be run like businesses.

“Public school advocates see America’s public education system as a civic institution — the country’s most important — that can’t be run like a business without ensuring that some children will be winners and others will be losers, just like in business,” Valerie Strauss wrote in The Washington Post.

In addition to her core beliefs about the education system, there are ethical concerns. She has ties to education companies, such as student loan companies, textbook and online education companies, which she could assist by making decisions in their favor in her new role.

DeVos’ hearing opened up an additional can of worms that questioned her overall knowledge of topics debated in the education system.

Of course, the 50 Senators who voted for her believe that her lack of experience in the world of public education is beneficial to the role, claiming that her experience in business is more helpful.

Party polarization has increased incredibly since the election, and there is much to be said about what comes of it. But using the civil rights movement to express those issues is just wrong. DeVos did not lose her rights because of the color of her skin or because of her beliefs.  

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