Clarence Taylor on Purging Racist Teachers

[Editor’s Note: We are delighted to welcome comments today from eminent historian Clarence Taylor. Taylor is the author, among other things, of Reds at the Blackboard. As SAGLRROILYBYGTH recall, last week we wondered if Florida’s firing of a racist teacher was similar to Cold-war-era firings of socialist teachers. Instead of flapping our gums more, we asked the expert. Here is Professor Taylor’s perspective:]

The decision to remove Dayanna Volitich, a 25 year old social studies teacher at a middle school in Florida, from the classroom, after it was discovered that she hosted a white nationalist podcast raised the question of the right to free speech. Was Volitich denied freedom of speech?  She expressed horrendous beliefs on her podcast, including agreeing with a guest who maintained that an African child has a lower IQ than a child born in Sweden.  On her February 26, 2018 podcast, Volitich, who went by the pseudonym Tiana Dalichov, maintained that there is scientific evidence that some races are more intelligent than others.  But should she have been removed from the classroom because she expressed racist views on a podcast?

voliltich tweet

Grounds for dismissal?

There is a long history of targeting teachers for their political beliefs.   By the First World War teachers were forced to sign loyalty oaths to assure that they would not take part in what those in power deemed as unpatriotic activities.  As scholars Charles Howlett and Audrey Cohan note, “there was a time in United States history when loyalty oaths struck fear in the hearts and minds of those who encouraged free inquiry and open discussion on controversial issues.”

During the Cold War teachers, college professors and others were targeted for their political beliefs.   Hundreds of New York City public school teachers were forced to resign, retire, or were fired because they were members of the Communist Party.  Not one of the teachers fired, forced to retire or forced to resign because of their political affiliation were ever found to be derelict in the classroom.  None were found guilty of spreading Communist propaganda to their students.  They simply lost their positions because of their membership in the Communist Party.

No matter how appalling Volitich’s views are she has the constitutional right to express those views.  I am sure that a vast majority of Americans think that Volitich’s ideas are distasteful.  But the views of Communist teachers were distasteful to many.  Because views are seen as repugnant to a large number of people does not mean that those expressing those views should have their constitutional rights revoked.

taylor reds at the blackboard

A different world? Or just a different context?

One may argue that unlike the victims of the Cold War, where they were purged for just Communist Party membership and taking part in communist led activities outside of the classroom, it is claimed that Volitich eagerly touted her white supremacist views to her students.  She even confessed on her podcast, that she shared her white supremacist ideas in the classroom.  According to Volitich when parents complained to the principal that she was espousing her racial ideology to her students, she admitted that she lied to the principal by denying she was attempting to spread her racist views.

But even with her claim on her podcast and a few parents complaining that she advocated her Nazi doctrine in class, at this point there is no hard evidence that Volitich was advocating white supremacy in the classroom.  Nowhere is it mentioned that school officials, including those who must observe her in the classroom, ever complained that she was spreading white supremacist doctrine to her students.    Moreover none of her colleagues ever complained of her views.  Is what someone claimed on a podcast grounds for dismissing her from her position as a teacher? Shouldn’t a teacher be judged for what she does in her classroom and for service to her school?

One may argue that the ideas Volitich expressed are dangerous to the larger society therefore she should be fired. But that was the same argument that was used to purge teachers and professors from their position.  Those who were responsible for the dismissal of teachers during the Cold War maintained that their membership in the Communist Party deemed them as dangerous to the country.  There was no need to prove that they were indoctrinating students.  Cold War crusaders argued that the mere fact that they were communists and communist sympathizers disqualified them from the classroom.

Today many recognize that the New York City teachers were simply victims of overzealous anti-Communist warriors.  Let’s not make the same mistake with those on the extreme right.

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  1. kwolicki

     /  March 16, 2018

    I am sympathetic to the comparison here, but I am wondering what would constitute “hard evidence” of this teacher’s racism affecting her work. In my experience as grievance chair in an elementary school district, I found administration only took student reports of racism seriously if they had some other reason (desire to eliminate position without paying unemployment, pedagogical differences of opinion, teacher was preferred admin bully target) to want to fire the teacher. Reports of racism would not make their way into a public document like an evaluation because racism reflects shame on to the institution as well as the teacher. Making the district look bad is a cardinal sin, and “social media policies” signed by teachers currently deny first amendment rights outside of the workplace. Admin live in fear of being accused of racism or sexism and are certain that children lie about teachers’ racism (assuming malicious, get-my-teacher-fired intent), unless they want it to be a way to avoid due process in firing, at which point they don’t bother with due diligence and just fire away. Student reports are tricky, and due diligence often reveals a muddy situation of misreports and misunderstandings but sometimes also outright racism (and rarely, student malicious intent). Racist teachers (also, sexist teachers, religiously biased teachers, etc.) are not idiots, they do not act out their racism when being evaluated or observed, and co-workers rarely address the commoner types of racism, sexism, etc in the staff room because respecting authority and solidarity are more important to keeping your colleagues’ respect and your job in a conservative environment like schools than confronting injustice is. Student test scores or grades might show bias, but also might just show our systemic racism or class structure, so it seems unlikely that these could offer hard evidence of this teacher’s racism in action. Student reports, verified with due diligence on the part of administration and union leadership seem like the best option here for evidence.

    I would bet admin in this situation has a few things going: her conduct might violate a social media or internet policy; they might have wanted to eliminate her for another, unrelated reason; even the purest union-type doesn’t really want to defend the jerk or be publicly seen as defending the jerk, and Florida unions are pitiful anyway, they might skimp on due diligence here; and the public would raise a stink if she kept her job regardless.

    Personally and as a parent? Get her out of the classroom. As a union rep? Check for evidence within her work, get her out of the classroom, and get her the best deal you can (unemployment uncontested? Allow her to resign?), then lecture the membership on not being a racist because that’s wrong, and that the internet is public. As a thoughtful human being? Worry about the racism of the world, teach children why not to be racist, don’t equate racism with conservatism even when conservatives seem to be taunting me into it. As a philosopher? Acknowledge the right to speech, the ability to hold beliefs you do not act on in your workplace for ethical reasons, but don’t demand a third-party witness to all wrongs, mistakenly assuming that that is more fair.

  2. Mark Joshua

     /  March 16, 2018

    This is a false equivalency with communist teachers losing their jobs during the red scare. Her expressed racist beliefs impair her ability to competently teach all the children in her class.

    Volitich believes in the fundamental inequality of people based on race. Her job as a teacher requires her to treat children in her care as equally capable of learning and achievement regardless of race. She admits to bringing these beliefs into the classroom but she could hardly do otherwise. Her beliefs and actions run contrary to her job requirements.

    Taylor takes the long view and may have a clipping where the same is argued for a communist teacher. Do share it. Still, racism, like any group-wide prejudging, is a soft violence that hardens up pretty quickly. Enough.

    It is not unfair to remove from power someone who acts with partiality towards groups of people based on race, class, religion, or gender.

  3. Agellius

     /  March 18, 2018

    Alice More: Arrest him!
    [St. Thomas] More: Why, what has he done?
    Margaret More: He’s bad!
    More: There is no law against that.
    Will Roper: There is! God’s law!
    More: Then God can arrest him.
    Alice: While you talk, he’s gone!
    More: And go he should, if he was the Devil himself, until he broke the law!
    Roper: So now you’d give the Devil benefit of law!
    More: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?
    Roper: I’d cut down every law in England to do that!
    More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned ’round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country’s planted thick with laws from coast to coast– man’s laws, not God’s– and if you cut them down—and you’re just the man to do it—do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law for my own safety’s sake.

    A Man for All Seasons (1960) – Act I

  1. My Heroes Have Always Been Teachers | I Love You but You're Going to Hell

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