While in lockdown during the COVID pandemic, a group of affluent parents in Ann Arbor, Michigan—many of them Democrats and a good number of them avowed liberals—incensed by public educators’ choice to shift learning to virtual classrooms, were part of an effort to strip power away from a female superintendent and a majority female and non-white local school board and bully underpaid public-school teachers back into their classrooms, an ugly a manifestation of winner-take-all capitalism, naked class interest, and white privilege. With Michigan deemed the ‘national hotspot for COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations’, Ann Arbor Reasonable Return (A2R2) members betrayed the time-honored Democratic party value of supporting unions and the working class by demanding that teachers return to in-person teaching, despite teachers’ and unions’ objections on workplace-safety grounds, since teachers had not yet begun to be vaccinated.
A2R2, representative of other ‘educational advocacy’ groups across the country, seemed to regard public education as a ‘service’ like any other, subsidized by their tax dollars and therefore answerable to them. Rejecting the democratic ideals of public education and scorning the expertise of teachers, unions, and school board representatives (elected, it bears noting, by the community to set policy for the common good), they tacitly embraced the corporate paradigm that regards public schools as purveyors of goods and services, beholden to customers. In their market-friendly worldview, the customer—formerly known as the citizen—is always right, but some customers—the wealthiest ones, whose tax contributions are highest—are righter than others.
For months of Wednesday nights from November 2020 through March of 2021, the Ann Arbor Board of Education (BOE) read into the record, during the 45 minutes allotted for public commentary, letters from these parents. Many of them dismissed the countless hours teachers had invested in transforming their curricula in order to engage students virtually, telling them that virtual schooling wasn’t ‘real’, that teachers didn’t care about their students, and that teachers should quit if they didn’t really want to ‘teach’. The parents in question referred to public school teachers as ‘public servants’, made it clear they believed their taxes gave them the right to order teachers back into classrooms, rebuked the unions for monopolizing the school board’s ear, and insisted that their children had the right to make choices about school policy.
Ann Arbor’s white, professional residents, unaccustomed to not being in positions of authority, experienced a rare sense of powerlessness as a result of the pandemic and the public-health measures that restricted their personal liberties. A2R2’s messaging directed the outrage and anxiety inspired by this sudden powerlessness toward convenient targets through their BOE letter-writing campaigns: the Ann Arbor public school teachers and the BOE. The anti-teacher vitriol had devastating effects on teacher morale.
I created an eight-minute ‘oral letter’ composed of excerpts from A2R2 public commentary in the BOE, which I selected for their bullying, emotionally manipulative rhetoric. In Nice White Moderates, a Donald J. Trump impersonator reads these letters into a pre-recorded BOE meeting to hold a mirror up to the divisive tactics employed by this ostensibly ‘liberal’ cohort of predominantly white upper middle-class parents. I introduced this work into Ann Arbor-based Facebook groups to elicit a broader and, I hoped, more honest conversation about the toll such tactics and self-interested assumptions take on our community.
The title, Nice White Moderates, alludes to two prior critiques of white Americans who self-define as liberal who assume all the advantages of status and wealth while failing to relinquish any of the power. First, it nods to Dr. Martin Luther King’s remarks in his 1963 ‘Letter From a Birmingham Jail’, in which he described the shallowness and hypocrisy of the ‘white moderate’ who ‘paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom’. And then it refers to Chana Joffe-Walt’s podcast ‘Nice White Parents,’ which examines how white parents in Brooklyn, New York from 1963 to present-day used their cultural and economic capital to ensure that school decisions were made from the narrow vantage point of what they perceived as their children’s best interests, rather than from a holistic, community-minded perspective.
Nice White Moderates focuses on the use of overt verbal attacks to discredit and disparage teachers in order to further the self-interested agenda of this privileged, group of education-policy ‘advocates’, and to highlight the corrosive effects of white privilege and the ways in which it can trump (pardon the pun!) bourgeois liberalism when the chips are down.