Historicizing DeVos’ ahistorical comments about pioneers and HBCUs

After a meeting on February 27 with the leaders of the nation’s HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities), U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos issued a press release, in which she stated that due to an “absence of opportunity,” “HBCUs are real pioneers when it comes to school choice.” DeVos was immediately and rightfully critiqued for collapsing the creation of HBCUs as mere ‘options,’ instead of a strategy of long-running Black self-determination in the face of full frontal racialized exclusion. To be designated an HBCU, a college must have been created before 1964, the year of the Civil Rights Act, and be dedicated to the education of Black Americans. DeVos’ comments clearly do not contend with this redress of racialized harm nor the ongoing meager resources with which most HBCUs still operate. However, what the critiques don’t illuminate is either the debt owed to HBCUs by a nation that professes equity but protects white property rights, or the deeply protected place of white women in the ongoing plunder and profit. Put a different way, can we see how DeVos is with schooling and profit, not just what she gets wrong? How DeVos is with schooling speaks not education as well as the larger project of actual pioneering in a still settler colonial structure.


Betsy DeVos’ relationship to children, schooling, racialized profit, and exploitation were encoded for her long before she starting giving them breath. She is, as a white woman and more specifically the chief education officer in the land, a literal and figurative embodiment of an historical and next-level raced and gendered project of stratified well-being. This is not to say that she does not have individual agency or unique actions that might transgress the shapes for white women drawn by patriarchy and white supremacy. Yes, she is an individual who likely veers time to time from the practices she’s been socialized through, but she is impacted by them and more importantly as a public figure, she speaks and acts on behalf of racist capitalism rather than interrupt it. Her place in society is both exalted and limited by the long-running and intertwined projects of white supremacy and patriarchy.


William Gast’s 1872 painting, “American Progress” helps to demonstrate the role made for DeVos long before she was appointed. The painting, often situated on U.S. history textbook pages that discuss manifest destiny and westward expansion, depicts a vast landscape of a Western portion of the continent. On top of this land are small wagons, stage coaches and trains, in that order from first to last, to approximate technological progress. White male pioneers are marching and steering these vehicles, all looking to the left side of the painting, embodying westward expansion. Floating above the men and their wagons is a large, angel-like white woman, dressed in a flowing white dress, with blonde hair wafting behind her. The woman is also looking towards the colony-referenced west and is holding a leather-bound book, a schooltext entitled, “School Book.”* Part of the cultural propaganda created in the 1800s to narratively justify violent treatment of Indigenous peoples, this painting romanticizes expansion on behalf of inherent progress and for the benefit and protection of a mythic white woman. Notably, the violence done to Indigenous peoples then and now, including the forced removal from lands through blunt, biopolitical force, is rendered invisible in the painting. The looming figure of the white Christian woman is deeply connected to this erasure, symbolically justifying settler patriarchal violence without a drop of red paint. Not coincidentally, the national profit gained through forced Black labor is also absent from this image. This echoes in the debt that the nation owes to HBCUs and their work to educate and promote Black professionals in the face of codified obstacles to Black wellness through housing, education, healthcare, and incarceration.


562enlargedAbout 100 years after Gast painted his elegy to westward expansion, Normal Rockwell painted “The Problem We All Live With,” depicting the literal and symbolic violence that Black children were bodily tasked with as the nation gestured towards racial integration following Brown vs. Board of Education. Rockwell’s painting depicts Bridges, flanked by federal marshalls who are escorting her alongside a building marred by racial epithets and blood, the signs of violent protest that has accompanied any attempt to interrupt, as Daria Roithmayer puts it, intertwined white material advantage. Michael J. Dumas has written extensively on the site of Black suffering that schooling has long been, including protracted fashion during short-lived yet vibrantly violent moments of racial integration. Ruby Bridges’ literal march through racial animus is front and center in Rockwell’s painting. The problem we all live with, as title and theme, is intertwined white material advantage, Black suffering, violent racial animus, and the sustained resistance to reportion population-level proximity to suffering and death. A recent yet quickly classic podcast by investigative reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones does this history and present apt justice.


Past is Present


Now, as then, racial inequity thrives off erasures and malignant fictions. Earlier this month, political cartoonist Glenn McCoy posted a mash-up of Rockwell’s painting, substituting Betsy DeVos in the place of Ruby Bridges, with DeVos flanked by white male escorts, yet still small in stature in relationship to them, and walking down a hallway that had the word “conservative!” scrawled instead of the n word.


The implication of McCoy’s cartoon is that DeVos has been unduly vilified by liberals simply because she is a conservative.  There is no wondering who is being supplanted for whom. The viewer is to believe that the occasional twitter drag experienced by a white billionaire sitting in the nation’s highest education office, without having ever been employed by a school or school district, is the equivalent of what a six-year old Black girl experienced when she was enrolled in an all-white school and then sat in a classroom alone because every white student withdrew from her class rather than sit in the same room. We are asked to believe that the material realities of threats, financial setbacks, and surveillance of Bridges and her family are equal to what DeVos might have experienced in online memes for a few days after her department misspelled W. E. B. Du Bois’ name. We are to believe that Betsy DeVos’ now sustained pattern of ineptitude on basic educational policies is immaterial even as Black children and adults are routinely questioned, held to higher standards than their white peers, and still disproportionately obstructed from social mobility and generational wealth.


Betsy DeVos and the Department of Education under her leadership has had, to riff from a line in the 2000 film “Erin Brokovich,” two wrong feet since starting. DeVos was widely understood to be thoroughly unqualified for her position, but this February has revealed further a lack of historical knowledge about Jim Crow legislation, the civil rights duties of her office, and her dogmatic answer of ‘choice’ to almost any question posed. She has contributed to the larger federal administration’s careening engagement of Black History month, marked by blatantly wrong references and poorly executed photo opportunities. She is defended through false equivalencies that are, ironically, in sync with her lack of historical fact.


And yet how DeVos is with education, simplistically championing choice as an experience that can be equally leveraged in a society steeped in equity, long supporting conservative Christian impingement on the secular place of public education, and recoiling from her responsibility to address the reality of ongoing civil rights violations, speaks far more loudly of the protection afforded her well before she assumed office. How she is with education speaks to how we, as a settler colonial society, are with a mythic yet all too real pervasive presence of gendered whiteness in education. When DeVos was asked in her confirmation hearings about the inequitable conditions for students with special needs, she responded that her “heart breaks” for those students. That response is likely what that ethereal white woman in Gast’s painting might have uttered could she speak. It is a saccharine and decidedly insufficient response to structural inequity. It is also how women are meant to be feminine yet not feminist. Empathetic yet not empowered. White women are asked to do this while also maintaining white supremacy, and therein lies the aggregate shape of how they are asked to be with schooling, key actors in one of the most efficient delivery systems of inequity in society.


When I teach preservice teachers, the vast majority of whom remains white women from middle to upper middle classes, the largest task is for them to decouple themselves from this socialization. I ask them to rethink how they are with education, to shed ideas of benevolently saving [some] children in favor of imagining into action a world not predicated on victimhood and benevolence. No small feat. None of this happens without sustained, rigorous learning about violent societal structures and the malignant narratives that facilitate them, including westward expansion and mythic white womanhood. This decoupling also does not happen by only studying ‘down’, peering into the cultural practices, a practice that unwittingly or not leaves the dominant subject positions untouched. There is no hiding from these ongoing realities in field guides of their minoritized students’ cultures. Instead, these teachers must remake how they’ve been socialized through patriarchy and white supremacy if they are to shift how they are with their project in education.


Sociologists largely contend that schooling and society refract each other. Like the floating white woman in Gast’s painting, the myth of white womanhood looms larger than the lived reality and certainly always present potential to rupture learned social positions. Disconnected from the laudable work of many anti-racist and patriarchy-busting women of color and white women before her, DeVos’ figure is shaped in a shadow, a shadow cast by intertwined white male settler conquest that justifies itself by guarding an ethereal, and only ethereal, white woman.


Pioneering lives on indeed.



*Note: The essay first incorrectly identified the book as the Bible. Thank you to Natalee Kēhaulani for pointing out the error and correct information.




2 thoughts on “Historicizing DeVos’ ahistorical comments about pioneers and HBCUs

  1. This is so spot on. Thank you!

    One small but interesting correction: the book in “American Progress” is actually a school book. Of course, during the 19th century, the school book and the Bible served the same purpose as tools of settler colonialism. I just gave a talk on my dissertation where I opened with this painting, so I love seeing it here as part of this post. Makes me feel like I’m on the right track!

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