A response by Sumi Cho, Professor of Law at DePaul University and Critical Race Theorist, to the controversy surrounding the Unequal Opportunity Race Video.
We are living in a country that prides itself in remaining ignorant of the past. What happens when courageous educators seek to teach students about this unspeakable past? The recent parental outcry in a Richmond, Virginia suburb against one educator's modest attempt to engage this difficult past during Black History month reveals one response—one that belies the “post-racial” era we allegedly inhabit. Using an historically-grounded animated video short titled, “Structural Discrimination: The Unequal Opportunity Race” to illustrate institutionalized barriers to equality, Dr. Ravi Perry could not anticipate the firestorm of protest by angry parents denouncing the 4-minute video as a “white guilt cartoon.”
How bad was it? It merely animated for modern audiences what President Lyndon Johnson referred to in a celebrated commencement address at Howard University in 1965: “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.” In the animated update, more emphasis was placed on structural barriers to equality that African Americans indisputably confront on a basis disproportionate to white Americans—i.e., underemployment, poor schooling options, mass incarceration, etc. But the analogy and punchline were roughly the same as what President Johnson told the graduating Howard class of 1965: Just because we have recently enacted formal equality in law, it does not mean everything is now fair.
What did parents and grandparents of students at Glen Allen High School find so objectionable, or “racially divisive” in the words of one agitated grandparent? To answer this question, a bit of context is necessary. The student assembly at which the video was played last week was prompted by a racist incident that occurred during a homecoming football game last October. During pregame warm-ups, Glen Allen’s PA system blasted a parody of a song containing over a dozen n-word references: “They’re trying to raise money, but they can’t cause they spend all their money. They're n*****s.” Many present felt the song was aimed at the opposing Richmond team from John Marshall High School. John Marshall’s student population is about 93 percent black compared with Glen Allen’s which is about 19 percent black. In response, administrators at Glen Allen High School laudably embraced the “teachable moment” in authorizing the series of educational events planned for Black History month. Cue the 4 minute video and accompanying outraged parents.
A longer history provides further context. In response the Supreme Court’s landmark pronouncement of formal equality in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, Virginia school officials together with politicians such as Virginia Senator Harry Byrd engineered a “massive resistance” to desegregation. For example, Virginia Governor Thomas Stanley appointed a 32-member, all-white Public Education Commission which recommended that the Virginia General Assembly enact laws to permit a state constitutional amendment so that the state’s compulsory school attendance law could be repealed. The Commission’s plan also would allow the Governor to close schools threatened with integration, establish “pupil assignment” plans to evade integration, and provide vouchers to parents who chose to enroll their children in segregated private schools. Virginia voters approved the Commission’s plan in January of 1956. Throughout the 1960’s, Richmond public schools actively opposed integration efforts by enacting “freedom of choice” plans (that were anything but for most black families) and dual attendance zones. These evasive schemes persevered until a federal district court judge ordered integration of Richmond city schools in 1970. In response, thousands of white students withdrew from Richmond public schools, and enrolled in private schools or moved to neighboring white suburbs. Like Glen Allen in Henrico County.
But to be fair, that was over 40 years ago, and this is now. We have an African American President. As a Rhodes Scholar Reverend Benjamin Campbell observed in his 2011 book, Richmond’s Unhealed History, laws permitting segregation were struck, but laws establishing jurisdictional boundaries were firmly enforced. As a result, local, state, and federal policies and monies constructed and subsidized the suburb and accompanying sprawl, enclosing the predominantly black urban core of Richmond with predominantly white, fortified suburbs:
During the first forty years after full integration of Richmond's public schools, and the thirty-three years after the establishment of a black majority government in Richmond, metro Richmonders erected massive new retail centers in Henrico and Chesterfield counties and constructed more than $1 billion worth of highways to circumvent the central city. Major office and industrial development located on the new roads capitalized on the booming economic development of the nation, and bled the economic base of the older, central city. Sprawling development of new subdivisions, whose housing cost excluded modest wage earners, reconfigured the population map.
The new suburban development specifically segregated citizens by income category and by physical distance to a degree never before present in metro Richmond. Suburban development followed road construction, paid for by the state and federal governments, and was based on the assumption that households could afford two or more automobiles. The dominant vision assumed no public transportation would be available. None was provided. Economic encapsulation of the "independent city" of Richmond by the General Assembly relieved the new suburban citizens of any responsibility for the massive capital debt of the previous century.
Teaching this unspeakable past and its implicated present is no easy task. But it is an important one that is urgently needed and desperately desired by open-minded high school students of every color. The video is “controversial” because it points out some inconvenient racial truths. But as Tyrone Nelson, Chair of Henrico Board of Supervisors put it, “Slavery happened. Jim Crow happened. Mass incarceration is happening. Lynching happened. When you have these conversations, they are going to make people uncomfortable. Period. But it is a part of history and you cannot ignore it. And you cannot act like it did not exist.” As James Baldwin once said, “Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.”