The basics: What stirred the recent controversy about AAPF’s Unequal Opportunity Race video?
As part of Black History Month, the African American Policy Forum’s Unequal Opportunity Race video was shown to students at Glen Allen High School in Henrico County, Virginia by Dr. Ravi K. Perry, associate professor of political science at Virginia Commonwealth University. Perry led the school’s first-ever Black History Month program to facilitate a discussion on racial inequality. Despite accurately illustrating complex policies, events, and well-understood racial disparities, the Unequal Opportunity Race video has been deemed by some as a "white guilt video." In response to complaints of only a few individuals in the Glen Allen High community which were elevated by national outlets such as Fox News, the school district has issued an apology and banned the video from being shown in the future at any school in the district.
Isn’t racism a thing of the past? Why do we need to show students of today something like the Unequal Opportunity Race?
Structural racism is far from a relic of the past. Yet many Americans have no idea just how much the current distribution of privilege is shaped by policies of the past and present. This is in large part because we only have one month of the year dedicated to Black history, and unfortunately the rest of the year might as well be called White History Months. Even during Black History Month, educators are encouraged to frame the Civil Rights Movement as achieving the end of a racially stratified society, giving students the dangerous impression that structural racism is not alive and well. This is evidenced by the fact that the African American Policy Forum’s 4-minute video that briefly acknowledges the uncomfortable history of slavery, genocide, Jim Crow laws, can be interpreted as a “white guilt video” that is “racially divisive.” We need education that connects our past, present and future.
What is structural racism and how can we see it playing out today?
If we think about the historical timeline of the US, Black folks have spent more time being legally classified as property than they have as people. If we can sit with that ugly truth -- which frankly we really need to -- we can begin to understand the concept of structural racism and its legacy today.
Structural racism is the idea that our society’s laws and the institutions that uphold them created racial inequality. It’s not about pointing the finger at individual white Americans, but recognizing that the foundation of inequality upon which our society rests is enforced at a systemic level. Today, we see this playing out in the mass incarceration of Black people, underfunded schools for students of color, segregated housing, predatory lending, police racial profiling, and the list goes on. A central argument of the Unequal Opportunity Race is that since American laws and institutions created and maintained racial inequality, affirmative action policy initiatives can help equalize opportunity.
But can you provide any evidence that racial inequality still exists?
Yes, thank you for asking. Here are just a few ways we can see the results of systemic racism in American society:
In 2010, the median wealth for black families was $4,900, compared to median wealth for white families of $97,000.
Black students are more likely to attend underfunded schools. A 2012 report by the Center for American Progress revealed "a 10 percentage-point increase in the share of nonwhite students in a school is associated with a $75 decrease in per student spending."
As of January 2016, the unemployment rate for Black Americans is 8.8% compared to 4.3% for white Americans.
Infant mortality for Blacks Americans is over twice the rate for white Americans.
Does the Unequal Opportunity Race promote “white guilt” or point the finger at individual white Americans?
No. The Unequal Opportunity Race is not inherently divisive. It’s about -- as the title clearly states -- unequal opportunity being built into the framework of our society. Those of us engaged in advocacy for social justice know that labelling unwanted interventions into the status quo as “divisive” is nothing new. The Civil Rights Movement was called divisive. Martin Luther King, Jr. was called divisive. Brown v. Board of Education was called divisive. But, what is truly divisive in American society are the ways in which rampant inequalities continue to shape life chances for people living in this country. What is truly divisive are those who label efforts to teach an inclusive vision of American history as “reverse racism.” White people are not now and have never been an oppressed minority, and to suggest that they can be victims of “reverse racism” panders to white fear and further entrenches racial divides.
The Unequal Opportunity Race shows white people as recipients of generational wealth. Isn’t this racist toward white people? Doesn’t the video ignore some obstacles that white people face?
No. The point of the video, after all, is to illustrate that the quest for equal opportunity has been curbed by policies that have effectively advantaged whites over nonwhites for generations. While the video does focus on the concerns of people of color, it is not meant to imply that whites go through life without facing obstacles. Rather, it demonstrates how widespread, group-based forms of discrimination are burdens that disadvantage millions of nonwhites. This is the video’s central point -- to acknowledge the intergenerational consequences of race-based obstacles in order to address historic and systemic problems such as genocide, slavery, and official and defacto forms of apartheid. The notion that the Unequal Opportunity Race is racist plays into the once fringe argument that anti-racism efforts are themselves racist, and that the primary victims of racism are now white Americans.
Isn’t inequality in the US really about class, not race?
Class and race are and always have been deeply intertwined in American society. It’s important that we talk about how policies -- such as welfare, segregated schools and subsidized home mortgages -- created the white middle class while actively excluding Black Americans.
Our aim is not to discount the central role that class plays in American society or the reality that poor white Americans face significant barriers to equality. But Black Americans continue to face race-based discrimination in regards to housing segregation, poor schooling, access to quality healthcare and nutrition, and racial profiling. In order to combat both race and class-based oppression, it’s important to hold frank discussion about how race and class continue to shape our lives, along with where they intersect and where they don’t. We need to acknowledge in our conversations, practices and policies that being poor and white does not bear the same kind of burdens that being poor and Black does in this country.
What about the many examples we have of African Americans who are doing just fine? Oprah, Denzel Washington, Chris Rock, Beyonce...the most powerful man in the United States right now is a Black man.
Where there are rules, there is always an exception. The fact that we see growing Black representation in media and political office is certainly in part due to the progress towards racial equality that has been made so far. But there is plenty of research telling us that inequality is still stratified by race, and to interpret the select few who have risen to the top as proof that the Black American populace has the same class mobility as white people is just poor statistical analysis. The exclusion of cold hard numbers makes clear we are keeping race out of class discussion to prevent digging into the intersection of being Black and poor as a starting point almost always at the margins of society. What it takes to get to the finish line is precisely what we’ve tried to illuminate in the Unequal Opportunity Race video, and because racial inequality is part of life for the majority of Black folks living in America, its content is intended to be representative of the average, not the outliers.
Isn’t is better for us to teach our children a “colorblind” view of society? Doesn’t talking about race promote racial animosity?
Promoting a “colorblind” view toward American society suggests that we have reached a point in American history where race no longer carries any social meaning, or corresponds to life chances. When we take up a color blind lens, our view is restricted to the myth of “America, the meritocracy”, a place where “anyone can pull themselves up by their bootstraps” regardless of the hardships they face. Events like the 2008 financial crisis and the now visibly unsafe relationship between Black people and the police poke holes in the myth that the boots straps were fully ours to pull in the first place. These holes force us to see that history doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and that our conceptions about who is valued in society are deeply connected to our past whether we acknowledge it or not. As long as race plays a deciding role in the opportunities we are afforded by society, we need to continue to open up dialogue about how our institutions have created the current reality of imbalances, and how we can use those same institutions to promote equality.
How does the banning of this video relate to other efforts across the country to censor materials that cause racial discomfort?
The Henrico County School Board’s ban of the Unequal Opportunity Race is one example on a long list of educational content -- including entire ethnic studies programs and literary texts such as Beloved by Toni Morrison or I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou -- that have been banned throughout the country simply because they confront inconvenient racial truths. In 2010, the state of Arizona passed Bill 2281 which targeted a controversial Mexican-American Studies program in Tucson public schools because it “bred resentment against whites.” Researchers, however, found that the program improved student achievement and fostered critical thinking skills and much of the ban on the program has since been overturned. Our current education system presents European history as “neutral” while Ethnic or Racial studies programs are labelled as “divisive” and thrown out of classrooms. What is truly divisive is the miseducation of millions of children that are left ill-equipped to understand race and racism by the censorship of educational content that acknowledges the historical and current realities of structural inequality and racial power in the US.