Mike Matthews, the president of Delaware’s teachers union (DSEA), resigned this week after racist and sexist comments he made on his defunct blog —Down With Absolutes— were revealed by WHYY. After the story broke, the teachers union moved quickly to convene an executive meeting and Matthews resigned from his role as chief advocate for Delaware’s 13,000 educators. DSEA Vice President Stephanie Ingram assumed the role of president and denounced Matthews’ previous comments in an email to educators. With Mike’s quick resignation and heartfelt apology on social media today, some are ready to forgive and move on with business as usual. But here’s why his resignation is not enough.
Important questions need to be answered
As you would expect from any powerful corporation, DSEA attempted to protect their brand in their remarks about Matthews’ online commentary. They were careful to specify that Mike’s comments occurred between 2006-2009 and that “these posts were created prior to Mr. Matthews becoming an educator and member of DSEA.” In his apology, Mike also noted that he made comments “from the period of about 2004-2009” and that he “became a teacher in 2009 after shutting the blog down several months before I started (his) job.” There are two problems with these statements.
First, they are not true. Some of Matthews’ other postings that have been circulating since WHYY broke this story show that Matthews was making sexist and offensive remarks in 2010 and 2011. In 2010, he tweeted about Rep. Keeley leaning against a brick wall “with a ‘come hither’ pose and Rep. Melanie George Smith looking “pretty damn good tonight” and “wearing a tight black number.” In 2011, he talked about how “middle schoolers” at the “ghetto laundromat” might like watching Jerry Springer. DSEA and Matthews want us to believe that these comments have no connection to any deep-seated beliefs at the time and that he immediately transformed his views upon receiving his first teaching contract. But I doubt someone can spew such disgusting things at night and then simply turn the spigot off in time for first period.
That leads to the second problem with this Matthews issue. Whether he made these comments a decade or a day ago, Mike’s comments online went far beyond jokes and satire. He has rightfully owned and apologized for his hurtful commentary. But I am afraid many will downplay the severity of what he said without really engaging with it.
Cris Barrish shared a few troubling comments in his article that were unearthed using the Wayback Machine. But with a quick search of that source you will find commentary that was much worse:
- “It’s the one week out of the year when black folk reserve their weed money and trips to get their hair-did to take the kids out for some good white-trash fun.” (Negroes, Beware!)
- “Maybe these Muslims need to take a hint. Unless they all band together and renounce the radicalists hijacking their religion and threatening free speech, then let us hope stern fits of Allah’s rage continue over these loons.” (Allah Speaks)
- “There were Hispanics ALL OVER Washington, DC yesterday! In other news, white folks across the country had to clean their own houses and harvest their own damned crops!” (Uppity Latinos on the March)
- Some crazy Indian woman scalded her 3-year-old daughter’s feet as a form of punishment….Oddly, the only thing that surprises me is that she used water and not some leftover scalding coffee from work. Hold the cream and sugar. Seriously, though, this is awful. Truly disgusting. However, you know the Indian girl’s still gonna get, like, a 1520 on her SAT’s in 12 years. Maybe it’s that harsh punishment that keeps them so focused to beat whitey’s ass in school.” (Cultural Gap?)
- “Does anyone else think it’s right to beat the shit out of a bitch? Of course not! That’s why we have video games! Men need to release our tensions in some way, and if it’s on some digital, chlamydia-infected whore wearing leopard-print, then so be it. (Helene Keeley Gets All Hot and Bothered)
My interactions with Mike Matthews since I arrived in Delaware in 2012 give me little evidence that he still believes all the things he once posted so freely. We mostly disagree on education policy but I never doubted his focus on social justice. I think it is possible to believe he has changed and to find what he said to be enough to disqualify him from being the face of teachers in Delaware. But, if we let the conversation around Mike’s old blog end after his resignation we are missing the opportunity for some much-needed reflection.
Important conversations need to be had
Rather than cast Mike’s comments as pre-DSEA ancient history, the teachers union should be calling for a broader conversation about misogyny, sexual harassment, and racism in Delaware’s education system. Sexual harassment and assault happens in schools too, and like the SEIU, the DSEA could be leading these conversations instead of sidestepping the commentary their leader once found entertaining.
We could all just move on or we could have a real conversation about the need for better accountability and preparation in the education system. Defenders of Mike Matthews claim that he was only 22 when he made some of these comments and that he was immature and mentally underdeveloped. But they forget that in our highest-need schools a large percentage of teachers are in the first three years of their career and are 22 to 25 years old. The truth is that whatever Mike eventually transformed into during his rise from the classroom to the head of DSEA, he was once teaching students by day and demeaning women on Twitter by night. How do we address this reality that impacts students in our schools and classrooms?
Finally, we need to wrestle with the “silence of our friends” that gets us to these moments. In the aftermath of the WHYY story, some who were around at the time of these comments came forward to say everyone knew about Mike’s comments and to claim they were widely accepted. Some even waxed nostalgic about the glory days when the racist, sexist, and intolerant commentary Mike offered was not policed. These silent friends now believe he is a victim of something that they potentially could have prevented with a little candor. They are joined now by the politicians, progressives, and activists on the left who have been silent about this issue. These same people would have already organized a protest had these comments emerged from a Republican leader in the state. Instead of looking away and seeking to move on, they should confront the cognitive dissonance head on.
We can and should make meaningful progress after this. Or we can just accept a resignation.