At one point in episode three, Oak Park and River Forest High School English teacher Dan Cohen and board member Jackie Moore are discussing the failures of the District Equity Leadership Team (DELT).
According to OPRF’s website, DELT was formed in 2012 and is “composed of administrators and faculty members” who are supposed to “guide the work of exploring the impact of institutionalized racism on student learning, create a vision for eliminating racial achievement disparities, and work to dismantle the barriers to academic success for all students.”
“Does anyone have anything to say,” Moore recalls former District 200 Supt. Steve Isoye asking members during a DELT meeting she attended. “It was, like, dead air. I’m looking around the table and I see administrators, I see predominantly white men and I don’t understand how this group can move the conversation forward for this school community.”
The “white male silence in DELT was deafening,” says OPRF English teacher Dan Cohen, one of the white males in the group. “It has huge ramifications for white males in power to be silent when race talk is going on. The racial systemic transformation plan has not been touched in about 10, 11 months.”
Fade to the monthly meeting of the district’s Citizens’ Council — a name that I silently puzzled over before the school board changed it to Community Council in February 2017.
Citizens’ Councils, after all, were white supremacist organizations formed in reaction to the 1954 Supreme Court decision, Brown v. Board of Education, which ruled segregation in public education unconstitutional.
That something like this would be lost on so many people, for so long, in as liberal and learned a community as Oak Park, is telling.
It reveals a lack of historic awareness and basic understanding among many Oak Parkers of racism’s, and by extension white supremacy’s, entrenched history in this country and their uncanny ability to survive by any means necessary — even by stealth.
The late scholar George M. Frederickson observed in his essential 2002 book, Racism: A Short History, that racism “does not require the full and explicit support of the state and the law” nor “an ideology centered on the concept of biological inequality.”
Discrimination “by institutions and individuals against those perceived as racially different can long persist and even flourish under the illusion of nonracism.”
During the aforementioned Citizens’ Council meeting, Isoye tells African American parents that they must be cautious about reaching for the “low-hanging fruit,” which comprises the basic stuff, like teachers having higher expectations for their black students, like counselors not writing off their black students’ postsecondary prospects.
As one African-American parent says of her son’s experience at OPRF, “He had a sense of urgency to rediscover his identity and I know [he], like a lot of other black kids here, couldn’t get to a historically black college fast enough. … He grew up in a home where he knew who he was. It is about expectations. The call I got from my son’s counselor his senior year was, ‘I haven’t heard about his college plans. I’m going to Triton next week, so [I’ll sign] him up.'”
If systemic change is to happen at the school, Isoye lectures the group at one point in the meeting, then teachers, students and parents “have to be ready.” When “people say we want these things to happen now,” he continues, “some of these things can’t happen now, but these conversations move the needle.”
As Isoye spoke, I could see James Baldwin forming in the side-eyed faces of some of the black women on the screen, some of whom have been fighting the same tiring fight in this village for many, many years.
“There’s no question that in the next 30 or 40 years a Negro can also achieve the same position that my brother has as President of the United States,” Bobby Kennedy, himself poised for the presidency, once said.
This sounded “like a very emancipated statement, I suppose, to white people,” Baldwin said.
“They were not in Harlem when the statement was first heard and will not hear and possibly will never hear the laughter and the bitterness and the scorn which was taken when the statement was greeted from the point of view of the man in the Harlem barber shop.
“Bobby Kennedy only got here yesterday and now he is already on his way to the presidency. We have been here 400 years and now he tells us that maybe in 40 years, if you are good, we may let you become president.”
To implement systemic racial progress, whites (and even non-whites, for that matter) will first have to learn this language of exasperation.