By Julio Angel Alicea
When Donald Trump was making waves for his bigoted statements about Mexicans, Muslims, and women during the Republican primaries, my high school students, most of them low-income students of color and many also of immigrant families, sought reassurance from me, as their history teacher, that he would not win the presidency. I naively granted them that assurance, thinking to myself “How could the country elect a candidate reminiscent of the segregationist George Wallace?”
After sleeping for what seemed like a few minutes after watching the results pour in, I woke up to an email from my principal. In it, she called for an emergency staff meeting before school to discuss how we would accommodate students’ (and staffs’) varied emotions, concerns, and needs. Not long after, the students whom I had assured came to me with questions of how, why, and what now. My eventual response was to share an affirming poem another teacher had written in the aftermath of the election, but provided only a temporary remedy.
Like others around the country, my school worked hard to affirm my students in the face of the emerging Trumpist wave. We even had an immigration attorney who met with some of our undocumented students who were the most afraid. But despite local efforts like these, Trumpism crept into the minds, hallways, and classrooms across America, resulting in (until now) immeasurable harm.
I am not speaking about Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’s desires to put more guns in schools or Attorney General Sessions’ support of anti-affirmative action causes. Rather, I am speaking about the president’s own pivotal role in reconstructing what sociologist Margaret Hagerman calls the “racial context of childhood” in the United States, in her book White Kids: Growing Up with Privilege in a Racially Divided America. This context, according to Hagerman, includes, “…certain aspects of a child’s local environment, especially one’s neighborhood but also one’s school, peers.”
Her concept provides a useful framework through which to view the impactful ways in which the president’s rhetorical agenda is affecting the country’s youth, especially in the context of schools. For example, much research has been done to examine the impact of Trump’s rhetoric on students and their schooling experiences. One student from California made the following observation in the Human Rights Campaign Post-Election Survey, published in 2017:
At my high school, people were drawing in the stalls above water fountains and toilets: ‘white’ or ‘colored’… I am Hindu and one white boy at my school called me a terrorist and a Muslim, as if the two go hand in hand. It was insulting and humiliating.
In a survey of teachers, a 2017 report from UCLA had similar findings, including one teacher from Indiana who reported:
We have witnessed a significant uptick in Confederate flag related clothing and items in the building among elements of a white blue-collar presence in the building that supports those views. [It] is now very visible in the hallways, parking lots and culture of the building. This has created obvious tension with them and the African American and Latino members of the school community.
In a third set of findings, published in 2017 by the Southern Poverty Law Center, a teacher from Georgia shared:
This is my 21st year of teaching. …This is the first time I’ve had a student call another student the ‘n’ word. This incident occurred the day after a conference with the offender’s mother. During the conference, the mother made her support of Trump known and expressed her hope that ‘the Blacks’ would soon know their place again.
Given these firsthand accounts from across the country, it is no surprise that the UCLA report concluded that, “…Donald Trump’s influence over students’ and teachers’ experiences is not confined to typical education policies put forth by the federal government.” Trump’s divisive rhetoric has not only amplified the volume of many controversial viewpoints held in pockets of U.S. society but has also extended their reach and lent them an aura of presidential credibility. Through doing so, he has had a measurable impact on the ways in which students make meaning of race in America.
Importantly, children of different races experienced different shifts in their racial context of childhood. On the one hand, UCLA found that predominantly students of color schools were six times more likely than predominantly white schools to have at least 10 percent of their student bodies feel threated from the president’s positions. On the other hand, UCLA found an empowering effect on predominantly white schools, where it was 10 percent more likely to have an increase in derogatory comments made by students in class discussions.
This was furthered by Trump’s politically and racially charged use of the case of Mollie Tibbets, a 20-year-old University of Iowa student murdered by an undocumented immigrant from Mexico. Note Trump’s distressing juxtaposition of (white) family separation and a call to build the wall in a video he posted to Twitter the day after Mollie’s body was found:
Mollie Tibbetts, an incredible young woman, is now permanently separated from her family. A person came in from Mexico illegally and killed her. … We need the wall. We need our immigration laws changed. We need our border laws changed. We need Republicans to do it because the Democrats aren’t going to do it.
It is precisely these kinds of comments from the president that are having a negative impact on how youth experience childhood in America. It is no wonder that after the election, a white student in Utah reportedly told his Latinx peer in class, “Hey bro, you better pack your bags” or that a Latinx student in California wrote, “I stopped speaking Spanish in places I could avoid [it]. I told my parents to stop speaking Spanish as well.” President Trump is the reason that Latinx students were 20 percent more likely than other youth to have experienced bullying since the election.
I close this piece where I began — by wondering how my students and others will feel in the aftermath of another election: the 2018 midterms. While Trump is not on the ballot, Trumpism is and a “red wave” come November 2018 would be more than an endorsement of Trump’s official agenda; it would also be a tacit endorsement of his racialized reconstruction of childhood, specifically as it plays out in our nation’s public schools.
Julio Alicea (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a former high school history teacher in New England and current doctoral student in Urban Schooling at the UCLA Graduate School of Education & Information Studies. His research interests are in comprehensive, place-based education reform and the sociology of childhood.