AAPF and the National Association for Ethnic Studies (NAES) express grave concerns about the recent decision of the Board of Education in Henrico County, Virginia to censor educational material pertaining to racial inequality. The actions of the Board represent a troubling trend in public education that undermines the goals of promoting a healthy democratic society.
As part of Black History Month at Glen Allen High School in Henrico County, Virginia, Professor Ravi K. Perry from Virginia Commonwealth University showed the African American Policy Forum’s Unequal Opportunity Race video. This first-ever Black History Month program at Glen Allen High School was in part a response to a controversy last fall involving a song that was played over the public announcement system at a football game that included multiple utterances of a racial epithet against African Americans. In consultation with school officials, Perry, who is also President of the National Association for Ethnic Studies, developed a program to facilitate a dialogue with students about contemporary racial issues. The Unequal Opportunity Race video was presented along with other materials.
The 2010 video was produced by AAPF to highlight the historical and structural barriers that create disparate life circumstances within racially marginalized communities. Developed for modern audiences of all ages, the video builds on President Lyndon Johnson’s observations that: “You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, ‘you are free to compete with all the others,’ and still justly believe that you have been completely fair.” It shifts the focus of President Johnson’s metaphor from the runners in the race to the conditions of the track -- namely, to the lanes that have been littered with race-based obstacles. In so doing, the video highlights policies and conditions such as slavery, genocide, segregation, underemployment, poor schooling, mass incarceration, and racial profiling that that have cluttered the lanes of racialized communities throughout our history. In this way, the video draws attention to both the disadvantages of having to run in lanes shaped by racial inequality, and the advantages that accrue to those who do not confront such obstacles. While the four-minute video does not pretend to map all inequalities, it does point to class, gender, and other advantages that further enhance the opportunities of runners who are not encumbered by race.
AAPF has used the video in its work for over a decade, and has subsequently created a simulation game to deepen the engagement with the material. Both the video and the game have been extremely well-received by audiences across the country. In settings ranging from public schools and college campuses to churches, businesses and foundations, instructors have used the Unequal Opportunity Race video to facilitate dialogue and understanding about the inter-generational effects of discriminatory laws and public policies. The information is often new to many observers and the dialogues that have ensued have been rich and productive. In the process, the video has served to challenge assumptions that racial inequality is solely the product of individual failure and shortcomings. It has placed institutional and structural disadvantages at the center of meaningful debate about the contemporary significance of racial disparities.
With the exception of the extraordinary actions of the Henrico County School District, the video has never been banned anywhere.
Despite its illustrations of actual policies, historical events, and contemporary racial inequities, the Unequal Opportunity Race video has been demeaned as a "white guilt video" by a vocal minority in Henrico County and by national outlets such as Fox News. Though that interpretation of the video is both misguided and unfortunate, Micky Ogburn’s reaction is far more disturbing. Denouncing the video as divisive, Ogburn, the School Board’s Chair, proclaimed that "school leaders have been instructed not to use the video in our schools.”
“This censorship of material that highlights historical and present-day policies constitutes an alarming capitulation to those who would prefer our youth to remain blissfully ignorant about the foundations of contemporary racial inequality,” said AAPF Executive Director Kimberle Crenshaw. “Honest engagement with the continuing legacy of our history should not be held hostage to those who can only relate to this information as a personal indictment. Educators who succumb to these sensibilities rather than working through them only contribute to the shameful mis-education of millions of Americans, many whose indignation about the video is only surpassed by their lack of knowledge about the facts it portrays.”
The Glen Allen School Board’s blatant censorship of this pedagogical tool is reminiscent of both book banning that is unfolding elsewhere in places like Arizona, and other efforts to elide, obscure, or completely ignore the historical facts of United States slavery, racial segregation, genocide, and colonialism. Schools especially, however, should not treat particular aspects of history as “inconvenient truths.”
Most Americans have no idea how much the current patterns of haves and have-nots in the United States are shaped both by explicit laws from the past and also by modern-day policies. While many Americans agree that "the system is rigged" economically, few are aware of the ways in which racial inequality has been structured and embedded in our society. This is why candid, fact-based discussions about racial inequality are so desperately needed. As Luke Harris, co-founder of AAPF, explained, “The real problem is the fact that structural forms of racism are enmeshed in the fabric of American life. If we really are committed to building a harmonious racial future, we need to dismantle that social reality rather than punish folks who are shining a light on it."
Against this backdrop, educators who are willing to teach their students about the history of the United States and the resulting structural inequalities are needed now more than ever. Yet, the “investigation” under way in Glen Allen suggests that the teachers and administrators involved in the Black History month program must worry about their futures. In facing sanctions for their role in seeking honest dialogue about racial injustice, however, they are not alone. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose legacy far surpasses those who sought to discredit him as divisive, was himself committed to working through the creative tension that comes from direct engagement with our history. The urgency in doing so remains even in this era, a fact that is painfully evident in the ill-informed and blatantly racist comments by some of those who support the ban in Glen Allen. The School Board should not support these views by apologizing for the airing of the video or by banning it.
Anyone who is remotely aware of the nation’s ugly history of suppressing materials that challenge dominant ideologies and political orthodoxies should be appalled by these developments. Censorship is certainly not the answer to controversial material and is inconsistent with our most basic constitutional values.
Other options are surely available to those who are made uncomfortable by the video. The School District could have encouraged teachers to facilitate a dialogue so that those who disagreed with the content of the video could explain what they perceive to be its shortcomings. Educators adopt that pedagogical approach all the time. Indeed, the fundamental purpose of the video is to offer alternative perspectives about the significance of our history in order to encourage informed debate about what should be done about contemporary racial inequality. That Ogburn chose censorship over robust engagement denied students access to the very thing schools are supposed to provide--the opportunity to learn and engage in the robust exchange of ideas.
Perry’s presentation to the students began with the importance of ideas, wherein he discussed how seven essential ideas form our consciousness as Americans. It is because of the power of multiple ideas, and the interplay between them, that this moment calls on us to show faith in teachers who know how to guide students from different backgrounds through difficult conversations; and to support education that values tolerance and critical thinking over lockstep agreement. After all, if schools prohibited the inclusion of controversial topics in their curriculum on the grounds that such topics are divisive or alienating, there would be very little in history, political science, or social studies that teachers could cover in their classrooms.
We applaud the local educators who enhance our collective capacity for civic engagement by recognizing the importance of exposing young people to a multiracial and multicultural historical perspective. Professor Perry states, “I firmly stand by the video and will proudly continue to use it as a powerful tool to educate people everywhere about structural discrimination.” AAPF and NAES will redouble our efforts to ensure that educators are equipped with the materials they need to do so.