The subject, though, was a natural for Leslie and Malcolm Cawthorne, who co-teach a course about race and identity in America and how it plays out in students’ lives, school, town, and nation. Cawthorne, who is black, recruited Leslie, who is white, to co-teach the elective because he wanted students to realize that many whites care about confronting racism. He and Leslie teach in a school that has gone from 71 percent white two decades ago to 55 percent now. They are helping their students, many of whom identify with more than one race, sort out their own racial and ethnic identities in two sections of the course.
Spencer, who’s credited with coining the term alt-right nearly a decade ago, made national news last November after The Atlantic published a clip of him addressing an alt-right conference in Washington, D.C. He got his group of white male followers to echo his “Hail Trump! Hail our people! Hail Victory” rallying cry. Many in the room flashed a “Heil Hitler” type of salute.
Spencer’s and the alt-right (short for alternative right) movement’s stances conflict with common mores in American society, the Brookline teachers said.
“When it feels more partisan, we walk more of a tightrope. For the ‘alt-right,’ I didn’t feel we had to walk a tightrope,” said Leslie, who viewed teaching about the alt-right as akin to teaching about the KKK. Racism ought to be a non-partisan subject, she said.
Yet, many teachers, regardless of where they stand politically, might lump the alt-right and Spencer into the too-hot-to-touch category. Even during the 2016 campaign, many teachers were afraid of talking about anything related to the election, according to a Southern Poverty Law Center survey, “The Trump Effect, The impact of the presidential campaign on our nation’s schools.” A little more than 40 percent of the roughly 2,000 teachers surveyed said they were hesitant to teach about the election out of concern of backlash from their communities, school administrators, and parents. Those fears have only heightened. In a November survey of 10,000 teachers, also by Teaching Tolerance, the proportion of teachers nervous to teach about the election and the post-election season rose a little higher to 46 percent.
“We’re hearing from teachers that they’re afraid to talk in favorable terms about diversity, that they really are afraid of being accused of partisanship now and the line about what is partisan has moved since the election,” said Maureen Costello, the author of the Trump Effect report and director of the Teaching Tolerance project at the Southern Poverty Law Center.
The relative newness of the alt-right also makes some teachers leery of teaching about it, Costello and others added. Her project’s website provides educational resources to about 500,000 people a month on race and other topics related to prejudice. Teaching Tolerance hopes to create resources on the alt-right for teachers for use next school year. Students, she said, need to learn about extremism of all kinds and how it works for various reasons, including avoiding getting swept up into it themselves.