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American Promise: Race & Independent Schools

October 9, 2014

By Sarah Maraniss Vander Schaaff

Earlier this week, I went to a screening of American Promise, a documentary that follows the path of two middle class African-American boys through The Dalton School of New York. The next day, I read Otis Lawrence Graham’s article  “The Rules: making sense of race and privilege,” in my husband’s alumni magazine. And today, as I write this, I realize how little I’d really thought about race and education in independent schools.

I had assumed that the abundant resources, highly educated parents, and having teachers and administrators freed of some of the bureaucracy of the public educational system was the best of all possible environments for doing things right.

And in some ways, perhaps the makers of American Promise, whose son Idris is one of the two boys featured in the film, had such hopes, too.   When The Dalton School recruited students of color, Idris and his five-year-old best friend Seun were among “two of the gifted children admitted” into the initiative, the film explains.

As the PBS documentary website, POV, says:

“Idris’ parents, Joe, a Harvard- and Stanford-trained psychiatrist, and Michèle, a Columbia Law School graduate and filmmaker, decided to film the boys’ progress starting in 1999. They and members of the large Summers family soon found themselves struggling not only with kids’ typical growing pains and the kinds of racial issues one might expect, but also with surprising class, gender and generational gaps. American Promise…finds the greatest challenge for the families–and perhaps the country–is to close the black male educational achievement gap, which has been called “the civil rights crusade of the 21st century.”

Then came the cover story of The Princeton Alumni Weekly written by Lawrence Otis Graham, a 1983 graduate who, as a 30-year-old corporate lawyer, did an undercover stint at an all white country club as a busboy and wrote about it for New York magazine. He’s now written 14 books, and is a successful attorney in New York.

The Rules, making sense of race and privilege” is, in a way, quite related to the “Promise” aspect of the film I’d just watched.

PAWGraham writes, “I was certain that my Princeton degree and economic privilege not only would empower me to navigate the mostly white neighborhoods and institutions that my kids inhabited, but would provide a cocoon to protect them from the bias I had encountered growing up. My wife and I used our knowledge of white upper-class life to envelop our sons and daughter in a social armor that we felt would repel discriminatory attacks.”

But then came the call from his 15-year-old son from what Graham describes as a “leafy New England boarding school” where he had been attending an academic summer program.

It was the afternoon and his son had been walking across campus. Two men in a car pulled up next to him and asked him if he was the only n___ at the camp.

Graham writes of his son’s fear, and subsequent hesitation to walk alone. He writes of the school administration’s disappointing follow-up when told of the incident. And of “The Rules” he and his wife had instituted to prevent this type of thing in the first place. Among those were how they should dress to avoid profiling (non-hooded sweatshirts, pressed, belted, non-baggy khaki pants, conservative blazers…never sunglasses); never run in view of a police officer; carry a small tape recorder in the car; always zip your backpack or leave it in the car or with a cashier; never leave a shop without a receipt; if you must wear a t-shirt it should have the name of a respected and recognizable school on it, among them.

As he concludes, Graham writes that it is difficult to “fairly and productively discuss the privilege (or burdens) that are enjoyed (or endured) by groups to which we don’t belong.”

He adds, “We see things that are there, but really aren’t and relevant subtleties linger outside our view, eluding us.”

While any film is the result of editing, American Promise takes us into the homes of the two boys it follows, and we hear and see things from a perspective many of us would otherwise never have.

The filmmakers and Graham address both similar and different expectations and strategies in the environments and culture of independent schools, but both highlight how much needs to change.  To read Graham’s article and watch the film is a powerful match.  And anyone can do it here: Article in Princeton Alumni Weekly & American Promise Website.


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