“I felt the heat, I smelled the smoke, I saw the fire and the roof coming down and no one, no one for a minute believed we weren’t going to win!”
OPRF football coach John Hoerster in Episode 1
In something of a meta-moment, this ninth episode shows footage of Janet Wells speaking in the 1973 documentary, As Time Goes By — what might be considered the precursor of America to Me. Wells, the vintage documentary indicates, was the first black teacher in Oak Park.
“Is an integrated community possible?” an interviewer asks Wells.
“You want to know the truth? Now, no,” Wells responds, flatly. “Maybe 15 or 20 years from now when whites are convinced that blacks are just as good.”
Here we are, 45 years later and Wells is posing the question again, but now she has a chorus of blacks and whites responding in unison to the same question.
“Is an integrated community possible?”
“Maybe 15 or 20 years from now when whites are convinced that blacks are as just good.”
Steve James’ documentary series was shot three years ago and some things have changed at OPRF, but the mere passage of time and the implementation of procedural reforms do not a paradigm shift make.
And a paradigm shift is what Wells and Tyrone Williams and Jessica Stovall and Anthony Clark and the chorus of other educators, faculty, administrators and staff people at OPRF want to see happen at the school.
Thomas Kuhn, the physicist and philosopher who coined the term “paradigm shift” in his 1962 book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, defined a paradigm as “a global organizing model or theory with great explanatory power.”
Kuhn’s focus was on the evolution of scientific knowledge, which he argued did not progress so much linearly as through these exceedingly rare moments of disruption, or shifts, that produced completely new and different paradigms.
So, for instance, the Ptolemaic system based on the concept that the earth was the center of the universe was replaced by the Copernican system that put the sun at the center and the earth revolving around it. The Copernican paradigm was replaced by Newtonian mechanics, which was replaced by Einstein’s quantum mechanics, and so forth.
By the way, paradigms, Kuhn said, “are not always correct, but we learn more quickly through error than through confusion.”
For our purposes, thinking about what we’ve seen so far in these nine episodes of America to Me as paradigmatic may help us to understand how decent and honest people can perpetuate really bad, even evil, systems.
The paradigm, the system of thought and understanding in question, is what the economist Glenn C. Loury in his book, The Anatomy of Racial Inequality, calls “ingrained racial stigma.”
“Nearly a century and a half after the destruction of the institution of slavery, and a half-century past the dawn of the Civil Rights Movement, social life in the United States continues to be characterized by significant racial stratification,” Loury writes.
He explains that the substantial chasm separating blacks and whites when it comes to “numerous indices of well-being” — from wages to unemployment rates to prison enrollment — is “not the result of any purportedly unequal innate human capacities of the ‘races’.”
Rather, the disparity “is a social artifact,” the result of American policies, history, culture and political economy, that is rooted in “an awareness of the racial ‘otherness’ of blacks” — an “otherness” that is “embedded in the social consciousness of the American nation owing to the historical fact of slavery and its aftermath.”
Slavery and Jim Crow may be history, but the systemic debasement of people of color, particularly blacks, is still very much with us.
In this country, racial stigma is the hard and fixed rule, as hard and fixed as Copernican science was in its day — the empirical evidence and the history overwhelmingly point to this reality, despite how many people swear by color-blindness.
This is not to suggest that race is a biological fact. It is not. However, as Kuhn stresses, a paradigm doesn’t have to be correct to dominate the minds of men. Ptolemy was wrong and a whole system of thought sprang up around his errant ideas.
Thinking of the way we practice race in this country as paradigmatic made me restructure my analysis from a focus on individual actors, made me go beyond casting people as villains and victims, and disciplined me to see the mechanics behind the paradigm.
There are good and decent and non-racist people who will look at the name Tyrone Williams before even meeting him, and, without batting an eye, attempt to remove their child from his classroom.
Barack Obama is one of our most decent and effective presidents (and our first black one) and yet I think that while in power he condescendingly and obliviously used his bully pulpit to frequently talk down to black people in a way that helped to perpetuate racial stigma (see the trenchant criticism of his 2013 commencement speech at Morehouse College).
Obama is not evil. He is not racist. He is, however, functioning in a racial paradigm. Ta-Nehisi Coates writes that Obama’s inexplicable “scolding” of blacks was part of a “time-honored pattern of looking at the rather normal behaviors [of black people] and pathologizing them.”
This racial paradigm instructed some very reasonable, non-racist white people in Oak Park to take flight when a black person moved in next door because they were rational economic actors who wanted to avoid what professionals told them would be the inevitable drop in their property values.
This paradigm instructed perfectly decent black people to tell me, on numerous occasions, that they were disappointed by America to Me, in part because of the types of black children it profiled — children who were not, in effect, good enough (smart enough, high-achieving enough, well-behaved enough, normal enough) to be exemplars of the black collective.
And this paradigm frames what I think is the documentary series’ most powerful leitmotif, which we first encounter during OPRF football coach John Hoerster’s pre-game speech in Episode 1, when he recounts his time as a Chicago firefighter.
“There’s no real training to replicate what it’s like to be in a house that’s on fire,” the coach says. Cue the dramatic orchestral music when the football team wins in dramatic fashion in the first episode — it’s the same dramatic score we hear in Episode 9, when Kendale’s family is visiting lily-white Cornell College in Iowa.
According to Kuhn, sometimes crises precipitate paradigm shifts, the result of “persistent anomalies that effect a blurring of the old paradigm and a loosening of rules.”
I’m thinking, for instance, of the Great Chicago Fire. It first ravaged the city and then informed its unprecedented revival. I’m thinking of the words of the famous Negro spiritual (“God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time!”)
Not long before his assassination, Martin Luther King confided to Harry Belafonte, “I’ve come upon something that disturbs me deeply. We have fought hard and long for integration, as I believe we should have, and I know that we will win. But I’ve come to believe we’re integrating in a burning house.”
Belafonte asked King what he meant.
“I’m afraid,” King said, “that even as we integrate, we are walking into a place that does not understand that this nation needs to be deeply concerned with the plight of the poor and disenfranchised. Until we commit ourselves to ensuring that the underclass is given justice and opportunity, we will continue to perpetuate the anger and violence that tears at the soul of this nation.”