Matt Driscoll

White supremacy lurks everywhere, including in an op-ed authored by a Tacoma teacher

I, for one, am glad to know where Mike Jankanish stands.

Jankanish, as you might know, is chair of the history department at Tacoma’s Wilson High School. On March 10, The News Tribune published an op-ed authored by Jankanish in which he argued that developing ethnic studies curriculum in grades 7 through 12 of state public schools would be a divisive move that undermines the idea behind “E Pluribus Unum — out of many, one.”

Jankanish’s piece was, shall we say, divisive. There’s good reason for that.

Despite packaging his critique of HB 1314 as thoughtful dissent in the face of “the overall leftist influence in our state public schools,” Jankanish’s op-ed was little more than 600 words of terrified white supremacy and jingoistic nationalism sprinkled with a few Abraham Lincoln quotes to make it more palatable.

Most op-eds in The News Tribune fly under the radar. This was not the case with Jankanish’s hot take. It sat atop the paper’s big board of most-read stories for the better part of the week and now has earned strongly worded condemnations from the Tacoma teachers’ union and four out of five members of the school board.

In response to a post about the op-ed in the private Tacoma Against Nazis Facebook group, school superintendent Carla Santorno urged people to avoid sweeping “all of TPS into the hateful speech of one teacher.”

“Most TPS employees work every day to include diversity into their curriculum and in their practice,” Santorno wrote. “We will respond to Mr. Jankanish and remind him of his paramount responsibility to students. I am glad to know his thought process so that we can work to hold him accountable to the expectations of his contract.”

While many have raised fair questions about whether the op-ed should have been published in the first place, I echo Santorno’s sentiments.

Jankanish’s words reveal a line of particularly misguided thinking that needs to be publicly confronted — not just shouted down but truly grappled with.

There’s a misconception that white supremacy means pointy hoods and burning crosses. If only it was that straightforward. In reality, white supremacy and the pillars propping up institutional racism are often more subtle. They can be found throughout a wide array of policy discussions, including on education, health care, housing and zoning laws and beyond.

While there’s a chance that some who peddle white supremacist ideas do so unknowingly or unintentionally, intent matters little. What counts is the impact.

There’s little question what impact Jankanish’s desired way of teaching would have for the Tacoma school district’s 30,000 students.

Perhaps most glaring is Jankanish’s seeming nostalgia for a “common American culture.” One might be left to wonder what the phrase means to Jankanish, but he makes clear that it’s somehow at odds with a bill that would direct the state school superintendent’s office only to develop a non-mandated ethnic studies curriculum.

Let’s spend a few moments unpacking what “common American culture” has really meant — particularly in light of a fawning view of a history teacher who longs for it and whose job it is to educate our young people.

Common American culture has meant dedicating chapters to Manifest Destiny while spending sentences — if that — to the genocide, erasure and forced assimilation and indoctrination that European colonists wrought on Native Americans. For decades, the original inhabitants of this land have been forced to stomach public school texts that portray them as a footnote to a preordained conquest.

Common American culture has meant treating slavery as an oopsy-daisy misstep in a country founded on the high-minded ideals of its “forefathers” while essentially glossing over the generational impact, trauma and harm America’s original sin continues to sow. We get sanitized versions of MLK and Rosa Parks made comfortable for white consumption, but that’s about it.

Common American culture has meant only passing or incomplete mention in many history books of things like life before Columbus, the truth of Reconstruction, Japanese internment, our country’s reluctance to enter World War II, the Stonewall riots and the disproportionate racial impact and racist motives of the war on drugs.

Common American culture also has meant failing to properly recognize the many contributions of people of color, migrants, indigenous people, ethnic minorities, refugees and LGBTQ individuals — to name only some of the people our history books have often excluded.

This is an incomplete list, but it’s an important start. Because including in our curriculum the histories and cultures of every public school student doesn’t just reinforce their value and rightful place in this country, it tells the full story of America — which should be the point.

Here’s all you really need to know: The target of Jankanish’s ire, HB 1314, seeks to encourage students to be “global citizens in a global society with an appreciation for the contributions of diverse cultures.”

If that idea is triggering to you, there are words to describe why.