In a clear display of historical ignorance and distasteful, incorrect analogizing, The Belleville News-Democrat of southern Illinois published a political cartoon by conservative cartoonist Glenn McCoy depicting newly-confirmed Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos as Ruby Bridges.
“Hindsight is 20/20” is how the old adage goes. In the United States, we are now overwhelmingly able to look back at Jim Crow segregation as very separate, not at all equal, and quite racist. In 2017, it seems Americans can look at images of the young black boys and girls who desegregated all-white schools in their districts, and the vile, hateful white faces flanking them, holding signs, throwing food, protesting our very existence, trying with all their might to intimidate the black children.
Famed artist Norman Rockwell depicted then six-year-old Ruby Bridges in a painting as she desegregated the all-white William Frantz Elementary School in her hometown of New Orleans, Louisiana. This was in 1960: six years after the decision from Brown v. Board of Education determined the separate schools were in fact, completely unequal (the discrepancies were obvious; something every black family at the time already knew to be true).
In Rockwell’s piece, The Problem We All Live With, the young Ruby Bridges is walking past a wall graffitied with the word “NIGGER” and smeared with the remnants of a tomato thrown at her by white people protesting her being educated with their white children. Servicemen escort her through the mayhem. In the political cartoon featuring DeVos, titled, Trying to Trash Betsy DeVos, the Secretary of Education is similarly surrounded by men (though in business suits, rather than military uniforms). A tomato has been thrown at her, too. And where “NIGGER” was in Rockwell’s painting is the word “CONSERVATIVE” in McCoy’s cartoon.
The issues with the political cartoon are many: for starters, Betsey DeVos is not an innocent child whose race and proximity to whiteness was found threatening by white southerners. DeVos is a grown adult, one who is not at all qualified for the job she now holds, with some evidence even suggesting she bought her way into the job. Indeed, the pushback and protestation DeVos has gotten is not because she is a “conservative,” as the political cartoon has scrawled on the wall behind her suggests, but because she, quite simply, does not know enough (or possibly anything) about education.
Additionally, relating the word “conservative” to the word “nigger” is offensive in and of itself. Unlike “nigger”, “conservative” is not a dehumanizing slur with its roots based in a system that legalized and legitimized the ownership of black human people. Being a conservative means choosing a political position with which other people may disagree. Ruby Bridges did not choose to be black. No matter how much racists throughout history have tried to force their own political and racial viewpoints via economics, laws, and prison system, there is no room for disagreement with the assertion: black people are as worthy of human dignity as anyone else. Meanwhile, one can disagree with DeVos’ harmful political stances and what they mean in practice without discounting her own innate human dignity. Much to her horror, people protested outside of a D.C. school last week, refusing to let the shamefully unqualified DeVos inside.
Bridges—like many other young black people who desegregated schools—was brave in the face of unnecessary hate and bigotry. She wanted to go to school; she wanted to attend a school that was properly funded, with desks and books and chalkboards, rather than the less-than-satisfactory schools all black people had previously been subjected to. On the other hand, DeVos has made several choices too: she’s chosen to remain ignorant of our education system and then decided to make herself available for the Secretary of Education position.
Though The Belleville News-Democrat provided no further explanation for the cartoon other than its title, the implication is clear: conservatives, be they the man drawing this cartoon or the people seeing no issue with it, think being obviously unfit for one’s job is as traumatic as a young black child standing up to once-legalized bigotry.
To be completely clear: DeVos is not facing bigotry. That citizens are displeased she stands to ruin public education and think she is unqualified for her current position is not the product of hate. It is not something—like Jim Crow laws—making DeVos an inherently second-class citizen. So to present the American people’s displeasure and forced accountability for DeVos and the Trump administration, as a) a civil rights issue and b) something that makes them systemically victimized is offensive to marginalized people and woefully ignorant of education itself.
Perhaps conservatives can learn a thing or two from the institutions in the United States teaching us about history. Maybe they could help the people learning that history to draw adequate parallels and give out merits or demerits out based on how well that knowledge was absorbed. It is essential the subject knows how to actually apply these concepts in real life.