Fascism Goes to School
The Connection Between Authoritarianism and the Classroom
Before Benito Mussolini became Italy’s fascist dictator, he worked as a schoolteacher. I find this bit of trivia about Il Duce telling. Most children have their first encounter with public authoritarianism in a classroom, I certainly did, and I’ve heard it quipped that what white men are to policing, white women are to public education. Both of these professions can serve as gendered pathways to small-scale authoritarianism.
According the Department of Education, the average schoolteacher in the United States is a 43-year-old white woman. In 2016, 47% of white women voted for President Donald Trump. In 2020, that number rose to 55% Columnist Moira Donegan has noted that the high level of support Trump enjoys from white women has elicited “exasperation” and “rage” from the left. Because I’ve worked in public education among middle-aged white women for over a decade, I’m unsurprised by these numbers as well as by this bloc’s enthusiasm for an autocratic strongman.
Being granted dominion over students in a public-school setting is the closest many white women will come to exercising white male privilege. The classroom is where many white women may mimic the power of a strongman and the power asymmetry widens when a white teacher is placed in charge of a racially minoritized class of students. In many communities, white administrators are placed in charge of entire racially minoritized student bodies. Occupying such positions of dominance can enable acts of racial sadism and like the insurrectionists who erected gallows in front of the Capitol, apologists often rush to the defense of white female teachers who abuse their students. Some enablers frame their cruelty as misunderstood humor.
Shanna Swearingen, a Texas school administrator, is one such state employee. In 2018, Swearingen, the principal of Houston’s Ponderosa Elementary School, told three staff members that if a Black special needs student ran from campus, school employees were not to chase him. Instead, Swearingen said, “We will call the police and tell them [that our student] has a gun so they can come faster.” Michael Burnett, president of the school’s PTA praised Swearingen, emphasizing that, “the principal has been awesome.” Karen Garrison, a district spokesperson, said that while Swearingen’s comment was “inappropriate,” it was made “in jest.”
One year later, another Texan, Carter-Riverside High School teacher Georgia Clark, made headlines. According to state data, Carter-Riverside’s student body is approximately 90% Hispanic and this fact apparently prompted Clark to send what she thought were several direct messages to President Donald Trump. Clark’s xenophobic appeals, however, were publicly tweeted. “Anything you can do to remove the illegals from Fort Worth would be greatly appreciated,” Clark wrote in one message. In another, she complained that “Mexicans refuse to honor our flag.” Though I’m unsure of what Clark meant, I’ll assume she was referring to student abstention from the Pledge of Allegiance, a protected form of free speech under the First Amendment.
As is typically the case, Clark’s tweets were the tip of a racist and xenophobic iceberg. Former students told the Texas Tribune that after they criticized President Trump, she threatened to report them to the FBI and Secret Service. CNN also spoke to former students. One stated that Clark said Mexicans should be prohibited from entering the United States altogether. Another one said that upon returning from the restroom, Clark interrogated them, demanding, “Show me your papers that are saying you are legal.”
2019 wasn’t the first time that Clark’s behavior stoked ire. Clark was disciplined for racist and xenophobic abuse in 2013 and according to a disciplinary report, she engaged in a degrading classroom activity, separating her students by race and then instructing the “’Mexicans’ to cross the border to the other side of the classroom.”
In response to public outcry regarding her tweets, Fort Worth Independent School District terminated Clark’s employment. The New York Times reported that Clark appealed her case to the Texas Education Agency and the state found in her favor, ruling that Clark must be reinstated or awarded a year’s salary. A report from an independent examiner also stated that Clark’s racist and xenophobic tweets are protected by the First Amendment.
In September of 2019, a WFAA reporter interviewed Clark, asking her, “What do you say to Fort Worth’s Hispanic community?” Clark smugly answered, “If you need someone to help your child graduate, you’re looking at her right here.” According to the FEC, Clark made donations to the Trump Make America Great Again Committee, Donald J. Trump for President, Inc., and Winred in 2020. None of her donations exceeded fifty dollars.
This type of behavior isn’t unique to Texas. In California, I’ve worked with administrators like Swearingen and teachers like Clark, white women committed to asserting their dominance over minoritized children. I taught in one school where a dean of discipline ordered me to translate an English message to a Spanish speaking student, insisting that I use my bilingual skills to tell a pregnant Latina to “keep her legs closed.” I disobeyed the dean. At a different school site, a faculty member strolled into my classroom, asking if I’d received the email about our district’s high expulsion and suspension rates among racially minoritized students. I replied that I had. The teacher then chuckled and said, “Well, I don’t know what they want us to do about it. Who else am I supposed to suspend?” The classroom where this exchange took place was one that I inherited from a civics teacher, and vocal Holocaust denier, who has since retired. He contributed $100 to Donald J. Trump for President, Inc.
I don’t know if there were any teachers present at the siege of the Capitol but fascist teachers don’t have to take the government by force to do harm. They are already embedded in the state and do harm everyday by reinforcing supremacist hierarchies on campus. Public education wears a polite liberal mask but behind it stands a legion of Karens eager to weaponize their whiteness and these women are enabled when we assert that classrooms, and schools, ought to be free of politics. When we delude ourselves into believing that we can create an anti-political environment, we water the myth of American exceptionalism and strengthen this country’s homegrown fascism.
Myriam Gurba is the editor-in-chief of Tasteful Rude. She is also the author of the memoir Mean, a New York Times editors’ choice. O, the Oprah Magazine, ranked Mean as one of the best LGBTQ books of all time and Publishers’ Weekly describes Gurba as having a voice like no other. Her essays and criticism have appeared in the Paris Review, TIME.com, and the Believer. Gurba has been known to call shitty writers pendejas and has no qualms about it. Along with Roberto Lovato and David Bowles, she co-founded Dignidad Literaria, a grassroots literary organization that seeks to revolutionize publishing.