Disclaimer: The filtering lens influencing my perspective and critique of the TV documentary series, “America to Me,” is that I am a parent of two former OPRF High School students, a longtime Oak Park resident, and a (recently retired) social scientist/researcher.
The TV series, America to Me, explores the high school experiences of black/African-American students attending Oak Park and River Forest High School. The “elephant in the living room”/Pandora’s Box, IMHO, is that this program is avoiding the discussion of how race and class profoundly influence the experiences of black/African-American students.
The program’s director, Steve James, may eventually disentangle how the race and social class of black students impact their experiences at this high school, but so far they discuss black students as if they were a monolith. If the series is going to make a real contribution to our understanding of the challenges that black students face in attending integrated suburban schools, then they will need to examine within group differences of black students (e.g. social class, acculturation and prior educational background, i.e. elementary school attendance at under-performing inner-city schools vs. private or suburban grade schools).
My prior experience (and observation) as a parent of two former OPRF High School teens is that black kids’ experience at OPRF is mediated by several factors: prior academic preparation, parental involvement, and social class and acculturation.
Specifically, black kids transferring from (under-performing) inner-city CPS elementary and/or CPS high schools have had a hard time catching up, academically, when they transfer into Oak Park schools. One of my good friends, whose daughter is now a senior at OPRF and an “A” honor roll student and already being recruited by top colleges all over the country, attended Providence-St. Mel School (nationally known for its superior academics on the West Side of Chicago) for her elementary education. Her parents are also very involved and are an integral part of the OPRF sports team she plays on.
Now for the ugly part: Social class and acculturation are like neon signs. Teachers and students alike can tell the difference of these “within group” variations. How are teachers and fellow students (black and white) able to discern the social class and acculturation of any given student? It’s pretty obvious — the students’ speech, dress and other behaviors.
So why do these traits matter? Because in American society we make judgments and assert assumptions about people (and their abilities), based on their social class and acculturation. That is, folks assert stereotypes based on these two factors.
Bottom line: A black student who is middle class (in appearance, speech, dress, behavior, etc.) is likely going to be treated differently by teachers and school administrators as well as receive a warmer welcome by fellow white students. Then you mix in a black student (like my friend’s daughter who received excellent prior academic preparation at PSM). She is going to have a dramatically different (social and academic) experience than a fellow student who has the added burden of having an inferior academic preparation, a result of attending under-performing Chicago inner-city public schools.
William J. Wilson, University of Chicago professor, talks about this social phenomenon in his groundbreaking book, The Declining Significance of Race.
I hope this TV program will “peel the onion” as they discuss black students’ experiences at OPRF High School and explore critical “within group” differences of black students (specifically including social class and acculturation).
Janice Matthews Rasheed, PhD, LCSW, is a retired Loyola University Chicago professor with a private clinical social worker practice in Oak Park.