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Opinion: Advice to Trump from a Chicago teacher — fix your tone

Presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a group roundtable held at the Cleveland Arts and Social Sciences Academy on Sept. 8. School Principal Debroah Mays looks on. A Chicago teacher writes that Trump's authoritarian tone turns off minority voters. (Thomas Ondrey/The Plain Dealer via AP)

Donald Trump’s recent visit to the Midwest was marked by an off-the-cuff pander to the African American voting block.

“What the hell do you have to lose?” he asked, arguing that a vote for Trump for president is a vote for security and prosperity for all African Americans.

Although self-serving, Trump’s question at least shows more empathy than when he ate a taco salad to woo Hispanics.

OPINION

It is no secret that many African Americans struggle to find happiness in America. Trump blames this on the failure of Democratic social programs and the absence of law and order in African American communities. “The problem in our minority communities is not that there is too much police but that there is not enough police,” he said, suggesting a surge in law enforcement is the key to fixing America’s “inner-city problems.”

If the police shootings in Baton Rouge and Dallas earlier this summer are any indication, Trump may want to tread lightly — especially in Chicago where the Laquan McDonald case is still fresh in people’s minds.

In a 2014 Pew Research Study, 70 percent of African Americans reported to have been treated less fairly than whites by police. A CNN poll in late 2015 found that 1 in 5 African Americans had reported unfair dealings with the police in the previous month. An African-American female Uber driver once told me that she has to preemptively wave down police officers in suburban Chicago neighborhoods to reassure them that she had a reason to be there.

Trump’s proposal to boost police presence — no matter how well intentioned — will be perceived as a provocation and must be considered carefully.

I would argue that there are political lessons to be learned from the classrooms of Chicago. As a math teacher at Frederick Douglass Academy High School on Chicago’s West side, I can attest to the futility of using heavy-handed tactics to control unruly behavior in the classroom. My school draws students from the Austin community, one of the most violent neighborhoods in the city.

I see angry, young African Americans every day struggle to stay engaged in learning while they suffer chronic stress and threats to their own personal security to and from school.

After over 20 years of teaching, I’ve come to understand that tough talk and posturing rarely works with students who are already in a heightened state of anger and defensiveness. Rebellious students feed off heavy handed tactics and use them to justify their own martyrdom as they destroy learning environments.

The only way to build healthy communities at my school is to convince students that you care about them and that you believe they have something to contribute. Intelligent, conscientious and charismatic leaders emerge from classrooms where they feel loved and appreciated.

My school gets it right. I walk past Sergeant Dunn and Colonel Cooley’s Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps classrooms everyday. I watch Officer Price from the Chicago Police Department coach our cheerleading team and organize peace rallies. I see Vietnam veteran Mr. Swain teach creative writing. I talk to my students every day about understanding where anger comes from so it can be used as a force for good.

We need to find ways to employ the same kinds of education strategies in the larger community. Not an easy task, but, in my opinion, the only way out of the spiraling violence in Chicago.

Advice to Trump: African-Americans have everything to lose if they vote for the wrong candidate. If you want to fix the “inner-city problem,” fix your tone first. Acknowledge the leadership potential in the African-American community. Promote policies that foster education and understanding. Give African-Americans a reason to vote for you.

Steven G. Fouts, Ed.D., is a math teacher from Frederick Douglass High School on Chicago’s West Side. He also works with the Republic Foundation, a Chicago-based organization providing leadership development to K-12 students and teachers.