Bootstrapping Betsy DeVos

An Open Letter to Dr. Howard Fuller

February 10, 2017

Dr. Howard Fuller, Ph.D.
Distinguished Professor of Education
Director of the Institute for the Transformation of Learning
Marquette University, Milwaukee, WI

Dear Doctor Fuller:

As a Sophomore working for Marquette University’s Instructional Media Center in 1986, I was assigned to videotape a series of your lectures.  The job was a work/study position, part of my financial aid package that also included Pell Grants and low-interest Stafford loans.  (It wasn’t long after this that Republicans gutted the Pell Grant program, pushed loans into commercial banks, and allowed private “for-profit” universities like Trump University to prey on students, their remaining Pell funds and loans… but I get ahead of myself.)

Is there any chance you recall the course/lecture-series title?  It was an evening course…

I recall your lectures being my first exposure to concepts of social justice and race, upending all I’d been taught/experienced in my rural, Eastern Nevada childhood, where I had exactly two black families in my entire experience.  (Bill Woods, the court reporter that worked with my father, and June Carter, the police officer.)   Probably too many white people live in similar situations where they can name all the black people they ever knew directly?

God, how 31 years saps the memory, and strands of life unexpectedly intertwine.  I was a Sophomore, and future Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker was a Freshman. (One of us graduated).

I was blown away by your presentation and ideas. I followed your career raptly since, and I’d like to believe that your ideas have germinated and taken root 30 years later, as I find myself suddenly “woke.”

Time and experience wreak amazing conversions on us, do they not?  I was once a devout Catholic.  Before attending Marquette, I was a seminarian in Dublin, Ireland, studying to become a priest.  But analysis and experiences took me off that path; led me far away from the political Church and its earthly power machinations.

Likewise, thirty years of detached awareness of the inequities facing African Americans has also finally given way to complete embarrassment, disgust and anger.  It started bubbling up as more and more black and minority men fell to police brutality, with justice inevitably deferred, often denied.  It grew as I witnessed sentencing disparity between black and white crimes, and the number of innocent men (predominantly African American) were saved from Capital Punishment by “The Innocence Project,” and DNA evidence revealing more and more false convictions.

It grew in 2011, when newly elected Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s Act 29 prevented gathering racial data on police stops, ostensibly because knowing the statistical patterns in who the police stopped amounted to “racial profiling” in Walker’s (and his supporters’) mind.  To me, Act 29 only seemed to prevent transparent data-gathering, to support investigation into potential racial inequities in Wisconsin.

My racial awakening exploded in 2016 with an epiphany — unlike anything I have felt since I realized I could no longer believe in the God I had been taught to believe in and left the Catholic Church —  with recognition that our nation has perpetrated the dual-chicanery of hiding racial injustices in plain sight (mass incarceration exposed/explained to me in the Netflix documentary “13th”; blatant discrimination against excellence, in the example of “What Happened Miss Simone” and “I Am Not Your Negro”), while hiding African American success stories and role models from both black and white children (like the NASA mathematicians portrayed in “Hidden Figures.”)

I’m sure you have a hundred other examples that I would now be able to recognize through my new, scale-free eyes; and I am sure I am in no position, nor is there any need for me, to enumerate the heinous discrimination you’ve lived through while I remained blithely, comfortably unaware and complicit in my silence and ignorance.

What we don’t know CAN hurt us.  This segregation and willful cover-up distorted – no, PREVENTED all of us from having an accurate, positive image.   The truth will set us free – at the very least from the lies foisted on supple young minds.

My mind seems pliable or adaptive: I was able to break from Catholic indoctrination when its abuses stacked too high for me to stomach, and a similar epiphany is striking me now in racial matters.  Too little, hopefully not too late. The seeds of your lectures are coming to fruition 30 years later in my life. I’m radicalized and looking for ways to put my voice and time to use in service of “Justice For All” and a “more perfect union.”

That said, I have always wondered how the person I observed in those lectures became a leader/advocate in the voucher schools debate?  I have no doubt you always work in service of social justice and the betterment of your community, as your lights guide; that the exigencies of your life drove you, just as those of mine drove me.

We do what we gotta do.  We know what we know.

But the “Choice/Voucher” movement seems to me a ghoulish example of “bootstrapping”  – that famous self-help strategy the Republicans always advocate, and which they willingly tell us is how they achieve their strength:  Those who created the vile poverty and segregation suffered by African Americans in Milwaukee — through redlining and other systemic discrimination, had the gall 25 years ago to turn around and use the very poverty they created to bootstrap the next phase in their plan.

See… we thought they were saying we should lift ourselves out of our poverty by our own bootstraps.  They were really telling us how they were going to bootstrap themselves out of sharing society with those they deemed unworthy.

By appealing to “choice” and to “saving the poor, inner-city youth who have no options” these cynics have used the very African-American children impoverished by previous policy as a rhetorical bootstrapping wedge to get African-American support.  At the same time, since the vouchers are valid in religious schools, they appealed to the disaffected white families who felt they are being doubly taxed when they wish to send their children to Parochial Schools.

The wedge of “choice” enables the Republicans to bootstrap their central Privatizing/Theocratic aims.The entire rhetoric of the right since Reagan, Gingrich, Norquist (Grover, not John the Milwaukee Mayor) began in the early ‘80’s, has been directed toward consistent goals:  Destruction of the concept of “Public” in all arenas (not just education), enabling privatization of government services with financial benefits flowing to cronies, and elimination of separation of Church/State… again, with power and public finance flowing to Churches.

This truth of “Voucher/Choice” function is as unmistakably obvious as issues of racial injustice were invisible or muted to me… until I was so recently “woke.”

It is as unmistakable as the fact that systemic cover-up of abuses by the Catholic Church destroyed thousands, if not millions, of lives worldwide; that the abuses existed even as I wished to serve the Church as a Priest, because I grew up indoctrinated to say nothing to power, believing the Church was all good, true, and right.

30 years… and the fruits of your labor in Milwaukee will now reach the national stage.  Your labor as MPS Superintendent, Scott Walker’s expansion of the voucher system statewide, and the labor of an entire industry and their lobbyists backing “choice,” are now reaching the national stage in the person of Betsy DeVos.  That wedge, that divide and conquer appeal to the poor people already destroyed and ill-served by the system, will be deployed nationally.

30 Years… I am sad and embarrassed to confess it took me nearly as long to move from your lectures to fully recognize the systemic racism arrayed against non-white, non-Christians in this country… but I’m here, now.  And I am fully aware the Democratic Party has also used the black community’s allegiance with insufficient tangible results.

But can you be “woke” to the damage that the Republican establishment has been building toward, with voucher schools as a significant wedge in their overall, broader long game?  Can we put a stop to their tactic?  Can we try to figure out a means to establish “Justice For all” in this nation, before it is too late?

Respectfully and sincerely,



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