“Respect Yourself”:Lessons from Bethune-Cookman University
John Thomas III, Editor
Dialoguing with politicians and policymakers with dissimilar views to meet a common ground is essential to accomplishing goals. So, do we engage or boycott?
In the January 16th 2017 TCR Editorial, I asked the question above about the inauguration of President Trump. Months later, the Trump Administration’s has demonstrated a low regard and ignorance of African-American institutions and priorities, as well as, the danger of engaging with the Administration without clear rules of engagement or plans. In February 2017, President Trump invited 80 HBCU Presidents into the Oval Office for a photo opportunity and touted an Executive Order which would substantively do more to aid HBCUs than the Obama administration. When the Executive Order was produced, it contained plenty of rhetoric, some symbolism, but no concrete improvements. In March 2017, the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) met with President Trump and specifically positioned themselves in a way so that the HBCU President photo opportunity could not be repeated with them and stuck to prepared points from a policy book.
On May 10, 2017, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos gave the first commencement speech of her tenure at Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach, Florida. Secretary DeVos was roundly criticized during her confirmation process for lack of knowledge about the Department she was to lead, as well as, her advocacy of questionable school choice policies. During Black History Month, she made an egregious public relations error by characterizing HBCUs as important parts of the school choice movement. Her invitation to take part in an HBCU graduation—particularly at the school founded by Mary McLeod Bethune—was a lightning rod. Was it a slap in the face to HBCUs or a meaningful attempt to gain favor and build bridges? Perhaps parts of both? The students of Bethune-Cookman clearly showed their opinions with many booing Secretary DeVos and turning their backs to her during the commencement speech. President Edgar Jackson threatened to shut down the graduation and mail the diplomas and while the boos did quiet down, many students silently protested until the end of the commencement address.
I appreciate diversity of thought and respectful disagreement. If there is one thing the Trump administration has taught us, however, that there is very little respect towards anyone except wealthy White men. There will be times when sit-downs meetings will be needed and the Congressional Black Caucus modeled how they should happen—with a respectful tone and a clear agenda. The invitation of Secretary DeVos to Bethune-Cookman University was not the proper way to have her share with the University or learn from its students. There was little opportunity for dialogue—short of a hastily arranged panel. While the speech text was appropriate, she represents an administration whose policies are clearly against Mary McCloud Bethune’s quest to create opportunities through a good education for all people. The Trump administration is not normal and its representatives should only be engaged warily and when necessary. I’ve often heard, “Respect the position, not the person.” But there are moments when extending respect to someone means disrespecting and devaluing yourself.
“If we accept and acquiesce in the face of discrimination, we accept the responsibility ourselves. We should, therefore, protest openly everything…that smacks of discrimination or slander.”
Mary McLeod Bethune