What I wish we heard in Biden’s State of the Union

Svante Myrick

Reviews are rolling in for President Biden’s latest State of the Union address, with many of them focusing on a highlight of the evening: the moment the president got Republicans to cheer for Social Security and Medicare. It was a neat trick. I still don’t trust the Right to protect these critically important programs – but at least their hypocrisy will be on video if they don’t.

It was a high point in a speech that covered a lot of ground, as State of the Union addresses always do. I feel for President Biden; I’ve had a similar experience on a smaller scale. As mayor of a city, I used to give a state of the city address every year. It always ended up as a laundry list, and my team and I used to wish we could just spend the whole hour on one pressing issue.

And here’s what I would wish for, if President Biden could have devoted his address to one topic. I believe there are few challenges more important today than what is happening to public education. The President talked about expanding educational opportunities, and that was very welcome. He could have spent an hour-plus talking about the attacks on education we are seeing around the country, because an attack on how kids learn is an attack on all of us.

It stuns me that one politician, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, was able to bully the College Board into gutting its new AP Black History curriculum. This doesn’t just hurt students in Florida. The AP curriculum is for students nationwide. And where does it stop? If a right-wing politician flexes enough muscle, can he get the AP to strike President Obama from the curriculum? The College Board folks already bowed to DeSantis by removing Black authors including Ta-Nehisi Coates and Michelle Alexander. He should be ashamed.

Censoring books and their authors is especially disturbing to me, because it means our kids will be less educated than the rest of the world. This bankrupts kids intellectually and ultimately weakens our country. My grandmother, who was a librarian, used to say, “Don’t trust anybody who doesn’t want you to read books.” As a kid growing up in poverty, books were my lifeline, and I firmly believe books are like food: kids will starve without either.

I hope that in the future, the President will use the bully pulpit of his office to send a strong message condemning right-wing attacks on education. Florida isn’t the only state in which this is happening; in Virginia, Gov. Glenn Youngkin made attacks on the freedom to learn a centerpiece of his gubernatorial campaign. He cynically rebranded them as a campaign for “parents’ rights.” But one of the first things he did in office was to set up a “hotline” for people to inform against teachers. The clear objective was to intimidate teachers and scare them away from talking about real issues, primarily related to race but also to LGBTQ+ history and discrimination.

There’s more to say about the State of the Union: that we were glad to hear the President take a more assertive tone on police violence, that we wish he had talked about voting rights. I get it: one speech can’t accomplish every objective. The President achieved an important overarching goal in making it clear that he will be focused on middle- and working-class priorities. He spent about as much time talking about price gouging that hurts average consumers as he did talking about foreign policy. That was fresh, and welcome.

And now it’s back to the daily business of governing and executing on national priorities. Fighting attacks on education, including book banning and censorship, has to be among the top issues. President Biden, great job; please keep it up as you continue to use your voice and your platform to speak out.

Svante Myrick is President of People For the American Way. Previously, he served as executive director of People For and led campaigns focused on transforming public safety, racial equity, voting rights, and empowering young elected officials. Myrick garnered national attention as the youngest-ever mayor in New York State history.

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