We’re in a time where students of color are being murdered by far-right white supremacists on their campuses. Liberal and leftist college professors are under attack from moneyed and organized rightwing thinktanks in a way that seemed unimaginable just five years ago.
Betsy DeVos wants to “return” the Office of Civil Rights in her education department “to its role as a neutral, impartial, investigative agency”. Lest our sense of irony has been dulled by the clown car that is Trump-era federal politics, her goal is nothing of the sort.
In fact, the goal of our 11th – and worst – secretary of education is simple: the dismantling of the office designed to ensure the compliance of our country’s universities with the various anti-discrimination statutes that are on the books. But before we get into any of the terrible ramifications of DeVos’s edict, it should be pointed out that she is a massive hypocrite.
When the Obama administration sent out a letter to state boards of education reminding them that there are legal protections for queer, transgender and gender non-conforming students – including allowing them to use the bathroom that best fits their gender identity – it was seen as a milestone in the guarantee of a safe environment of learning for everyone. For most Americans, using the bathroom is something that we take for granted; when you gotta go, you go.
But the story is different for those outside of the gender binary: in a 2016 survey of transgender Americans, 12% reported experiencing verbal harassment, 9% were denied access to a bathroom altogether, and 2% were either physically attacked or sexually assaulted.
And this violence does not happen in a vacuum, not when lawmakers are filing bills that essentially place bounties on the heads of transgender students for using the bathroom of their choice. And not when the “threat” of “men in women’s bathrooms” has been used to whip up fear against transgender people. Small wonder, then, that the aforementioned survey found that 60% of transgender people sought to avoid public bathrooms altogether from fear that they might also become a statistic.
In her announcement, DeVos decried the Obama administration’s guidance on this topic as it “deprived the public of meaningful opportunities to provide input”. You can Google articles on “obama transgender bathroom guidance hearings” from 20 January 20 to the present day to see if any “meaningful opportunities to provide input” were granted to the public. But some advice: I would refrain from holding your breath while doing so, lest your family incur unexpected funeral costs.
But aside from the hypocrisy of the matter, DeVos’s vision for this particular federal office at this particular moment in our nation’s history should be a great cause of concern.
In her statement – which was prompted by a blistering critique of the “diminished” focus on civil rights investigations from 34 Democrats in the US Senate – DeVos said:
At the previous administration’s direction, OCR all too often automatically handled individual complaints as evidence of systematic institutional violations. As a result, OCR staff were forced to expand the scope of these investigations dramatically beyond the facts alleged in the filed complaint.”
DeVos’s claim that this is somehow an error – that the Office of Civil Rights should somehow ignore the possibility that there are institutional issues that preclude the equal delivery of education to all students – is baffling.
This shift in ethos places the onus on students to seek out information on systemic discrimination and safety issues on their campuses, essentially deputizing them as investigators without compensation for their labor. Certainly, school district and college administrators will be reluctant to voluntarily open up their books in an environment where education is just as much of a marketized commodity as any other commercial product.
Finally, the notion that civil rights should be up for popular opinion is a dangerous one. The reason that they are civil rights – and human rights – in the first place is because they are inalienable, inherent and guaranteed by dint of one’s birth into a world that values any measure of justice and equality.
Today, we look at the periods of American history when minority rights were a tool of demagoguery – the Jacksonian era for Native Americans, the first 100 years after the civil war for black Americans – with a sense of shame and disgust.
We find ourselves in a time where students of color are being murdered by far-right white supremacists on their campuses. Liberal and leftist college professors are under attack from moneyed and organized rightwing thinktanks in a way that seemed unimaginable just five years ago.
And we still live in a world where marginalized people – be they women, Muslims, black people, LGBT, or immigrants – struggle not to have a “safe space” free from contending opinion, but a space that is safe for them to simply engage in the full experience of being a young person with nothing less than the world and all its knowledge before them.
How will future generations judge Betsy DeVos and her Department of Education’s commitment to those people?
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