Episode 4: 'There's nothing funny about race!'

So far, challenging stereotypes has been one-sided

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By Michael Romain on 'America to Me'

Staff reporter

While watching episode four of America to Me, I was alerted to something social psychologist Claude M. Steele wrote in his book, Whistling Vivaldi: And Other Clues to How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do.

Citing the work of two other social psychologists, Edward Jones and Richard Nisbett, Steele writes that "when it comes to explaining people's behavior — something like achievement problems, for example — there's a big difference between the 'observer's perspective' — the perspective of a person observing the behavior — and the 'actor's perspective' — the perspective of a person doing the behavior." 

As observers, Steele writes, "we're looking at the actor, the person doing the behavior we are trying to explain. Thus the actor dominates our literal and mental visual field, which makes the circumstances to which he is responding less visible to us." 

In the "picture in our minds" that forms as a result of our observations, "the actor sticks out like a sore thumb and the circumstances to which he is responding are obscured from view." 

According to Jones and Nisbett, Steele explains, this "picture causes a bias when we try to explain the actor's behavior. We emphasize the things we can see. We emphasize things about the actor — characteristics, traits, and so on — that seem like plausible explanations for her behavior." 

We "deemphasize, as causes of her behavior, the things we can't see very well, namely, the circumstances to which she is adapting."

What Steele describes as a stereotype threat emerges from this nuanced interplay between actor and observer, "the fact that as members of a society we have a pretty good idea of what other members of our society think about lots of things, including the major groups and identities in society.

"This means," Steele adds, "that whenever we're in a situation where a bad stereotype about one of our own identities could be applied to us — such as those about being old, poor, rich, or female — we know about it. We know 'what people could think.' We know that anything we do that fits the stereotype could be taken as confirming it. And we know that, for that reason, we could be judged and treated accordingly." 

That insight from Steele, Jones and Nisbett illuminates a profound flaw, not so much in the documentary series as in how people handle racialized problems like real disparities between blacks and whites. 

No white person who doesn't consider herself racist (to say nothing of the white person who is a self-styled progressive or liberal) wants to be accused of racism, especially by a person of color. That's a very real stereotype threat and white people go out of their way not to have to deal with it (to say nothing of dealing with it in front of a camera crew).

Hence, the absence of whites as real actors in the great racialized drama unfolding throughout the series thus far, with a few exceptions, such as physics teacher Aaron Podolner's awkward, if well intended, attempts to engage students in a discussion about his "racial memoir".  

What we've seen throughout the first four episodes are white people as an atomized crowd of extras (as a collective background that comprises a cultural norm), as witnesses to the racist acts of other whites, as beneficent (think the Peace Corps) or as neutral arbiters (think UN forces in war-torn African countries). 

We've seen very few whites seriously grappling with their racial identities with the kind of intensity and regularity that we see from the documentary's black and brown subjects.

For instance, who are these parents who are essentially "white-flighting" their kids out of the college preparatory track, as OPRF teacher Paul Noble points out in an earlier episode? Where is the white student who yelled "Nigger!" at Jessica Stovall? Who are these white people from Hinsdale Central (and allegedly other schools) yelling racial epithets at OPRF football players during games? 

They are, so far, nowhere to be found. What we do see, however, is Ke'Shawn Kumsa getting suspended for an infraction. We see Tiara Oliphant's and Kumsa's academic apathy and Kendale McCoy's classroom struggles. 

Also likely to be missing from the observer's perspective is deep context explaining the behavior of these black and brown "actors." Absent Bull Connor-like antagonists and illuminating social and historical forces, we are left with our own flaccid interpretations.  

Claude Steele observed through his reading and research that "black student underperformance was a national phenomenon [that] happened throughout the education system, in college classes, in medical schools, in law schools, in business schools, and often in K-through-12 schooling." 

Steele found "standing at the ready" many explanations "from the observer's perspective," for example a lack "of motivation or cultural knowledge or skills to succeed at more difficult coursework" or "low self-esteem." 

But could those explanations "fully explain the occurrence of underperformance in so many groups, at so many levels of schooling?" 

This is a hard question, but the answer doesn't come through whites simply checking out of, or absolving themselves from having any personal stake, in the conversation.

In his Wednesday Journal Conversation, Sept. 11, at Dominican University's Lund Auditorium, Steve James noted that a few white students begin to appear in Episode 5. So we'll see if that changes the dynamic.  

CONTACT: michael@austinweeklynews.com 

Email: michael@oakpark.com

Reader Comments

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Rob Ruffulo  

Posted: September 30th, 2018 7:16 AM

I agree with Barbara Joan, Drew: Why is the Academic playing field at OPRF not level?? Who is at a disadvantage?

Barbara Joan  

Posted: September 29th, 2018 6:31 PM

When racial slurs, disrespectful behavior, and hate resonates from any being, it's unacceptable no matter what skin color you are--how sad that anyone considers another incapable of being a decent human being because of their race, the soft bigotry of low expectations indeed i am certain offends most black people.

Drew Rein  

Posted: September 29th, 2018 4:29 PM

@Barbara Joan -The academic playing field at OPRF is not level and those at a distinct disadvantage feel frustrated and angry. Regret that you feel you have been the target of racism. Must be difficult.

Barbara Joan  

Posted: September 29th, 2018 2:09 PM

Hate is hate and racism is racism.It's clearly an inconvenient truth that white people are hated by non-white racists. Truth is that all people struggle in various ways regardless of their race, gender, socioeconomic status...unconditional love and respect is how real progress will be made in how real people live their lives.

Jacek Lazarczyk  

Posted: September 28th, 2018 3:18 PM

@Thad, speaking of incremental approach, there are certain science courses at OPRF that use that approach. Students enrolled in the "Models of Physics" (and then Chemistry and Biology) have an opportunity to earn honors if they do well. These courses use hands-on lab work more than the traditional textbook lecturing.

Thad Davis  

Posted: September 28th, 2018 1:35 PM

@Drew, the Evanston article is pretty compelling. I think it's worth noting that far from eliminating tracking they just got rid of it for three 9th grade courses (English, History and Biology) and still allowed students to "earn" honors if they did well in the course. Could still be a tough sell, but all things considers it seems fairly modest, incremental and doable.

Christopher Bell  

Posted: September 26th, 2018 10:21 AM

@ Drew for the legacy ultimately to work, it needs broad community support. The primary difference between today and 30 years ago (when I graduated), is middle class jobs were plentiful and middle class was strong. The reality is with rising taxes, no real wage growth and slipping middle class, not sure how it will received. The other primary difference is the world is international - go to any top 50 college or employer and half the class is foreign. Many are worries about their children and are faced with tough reality that their children may not have as good a standard of living - therefore helping others may no be possible ...

Christopher Bell  

Posted: September 26th, 2018 9:45 AM

@ Drew Very interesting article and I am sure that will be one of recommendations from the series. As the article says, there was signifcant pushback from community. Not even sure why I so emotionally invested. My push is to get my boys out of OPRF in next 24 months, into top schools and my fat ass will be gone before ink dries on the diploma. To be never heard from or seen again. I only returned to Oak PArk to care of ailing parent and stayed because of romantic memories (30 years) of a town which no longer exist.. My parents The SADE song "Never as good as first time" comes to mind. I digress. Bottom line is you are right - the legacy of this series will be measured in change and RESULTS.

Drew Rein  

Posted: September 26th, 2018 8:17 AM

@ChristopherBell Evanston High School eliminated their tracking system in 2010. Results are speaking for themselves. http://www.kappanonline.org/detracked-and-going-strong/ btw I am using a family surname (facebook allows this) and have an account so that I may participate in forums such as this. WJ is too small to monitor all the comments and I recall before they used Facebook verified the comments were vitriolic. I may be old because I find Facebook too full of self-promotion to sift through for content. Further, I have never liked sitting through people's vacation pictures even my own. Peace.

Christopher Bell  

Posted: September 25th, 2018 8:44 PM

The deep question is what does America to Me mean and from who's perspective. If James means this to rep how those on margin view with world and issues, then perhaps there is no need to highlight others (assumed they exist). In other words this is written /directed from their view of America /Oak park etc. the end result has already been hinted at ... recommendations that. do away with track system .... no honor or AP which is a hard pill to swallow even for Oak Park

Bruce Kline  

Posted: September 25th, 2018 8:17 PM

Yeah I agree with Chris and Drew. Mr. James seemingly purposely avoided very high achieving AA, because it would not fit his predetermined narrative. How else to explain (at least after viewing five episodes) not talking in depth to Gabe Townsell, a senior at the time of filming who finished 3rd in the state in wrestling the previous year (and finished 3rd in the year of filming as well) and was accepted to Stanford University. You know, Stanford ... with the lowest acceptance rate in the nation! Let that sink in. Mr. James has clearly digressed from respected documentarian to mere propagandist in my opinion.

Kline Maureen  

Posted: September 25th, 2018 11:55 AM

and as far as the "gap" - I wouldn't be too surprised to see things start to improve in that regard once "we" stop trying to fix it. I once had a bumper sticker that read "If it ain't broke, fix it until it is." In some ways, that kind of makes me think of education in general.

Christopher Bell  

Posted: September 25th, 2018 10:19 AM

@ DREW is your name an anagram? Tried unsuccessfully to look you up on facebook and linked in. Look me up for drinks OR I may already know you and reach out. LinkenIN Christopher J Bell, Chicago University of Chicago, Harvard. PEACE

Christopher Bell  

Posted: September 25th, 2018 10:06 AM

@ DREW - you sound like a good friend who mentioned this morning that housing prices will fall 20% due to this - and perceived quality of school. The thing missing - 27 AP courses, sends kids of all colors to TOP Colleges, etc.

Christopher Bell  

Posted: September 25th, 2018 10:02 AM

@ Drew I recall that game as my son was a freshmen and issues on both sides. On a side note, Mr Williams is an awesome professor. My son and other AA boys had him and RAVE reviews. All of the teachers seemed really committed - but as we know efforts are meaningless if results stink.

Drew Rein  

Posted: September 25th, 2018 9:59 AM

Principal Rouse was (correctly) against filming this series. Oak Park's housing market seems to be in a free-fall and this is not going to help at all. I see Stovall and Noble as using this series as a springboard for further careers. Unimpressed. Shutting it, for now, also.

Christopher Bell  

Posted: September 25th, 2018 9:52 AM

Last comment ( and will shut my fat mouth). There are unintended consequences for students of all colors - the school now has a brand that is widely - and not a good one. For those of us applying to college it could impact select school that rank quality of school. Had recent email exchange with college admin person (at TOP 20 school) and she mentioned the series. So unknown if this will have lasting impact on long term brand of school.

Drew Rein  

Posted: September 25th, 2018 9:47 AM

@ Christopher - We must know some of the same families :) I came on today to see what the latest and greatest was after viewing episodes 5 and 6. The Fenwick/OPRF dust up was grossly mis-characterized and what's up with a teacher (Stovall) texting her student. Boundaries crossed all over the place.

Christopher Bell  

Posted: September 25th, 2018 9:20 AM

I know at least 6 AA Oak PArk families who went private with 11 students. If you send AA kids to OPRF it must be with eyes wide open and very carefully monitored. Black kids are often marginalized on high and low end.

Christopher Bell  

Posted: September 25th, 2018 9:12 AM

@ DREW - you are correct as many send them to Fenwick, St Ignatius etc. to avoid the issues identified in the series. We considered it as well but as OPRF alum, I was fully aware and warned them that they would given no breaks, that there were good and bad people of all races. There is also pressure for black kids who do perform well to be called uncle tom etc. There is nothing new in this series for anyone who went to OPRF and is black. Hope is again, things will change...

Drew Rein  

Posted: September 25th, 2018 9:06 AM

Many high achieving African American families choose private schools rather than OPRF. This series has, thus far, missed the mark on showing economic disparities that cross racial lines.

Christopher Bell  

Posted: September 25th, 2018 8:52 AM

@ Tom. Would like to see a more fair and balanced story for the last episodes. The academic analogy is with the wrestlers - rather than portray the All American at all, the focus is on struggling athlete - same with parents. This are deep problems no question - but there are also black/brown students who are succeeding it (wealthy and poor). Had call with friend from NYC and his comment was is Oak PArk really that bad? Thought is was a nice community and why did you move there as a black person. Finally, this ultimately about results and the last published data said only 35% of AA students go on to college etc...

Tom MacMillan  

Posted: September 24th, 2018 4:11 PM

@Christopher - I have always disliked the way conversations on the so called gap lump people together. Of course there are outstanding black students, and that messes up part of the story line so it never gets talked about. I am not a fan of "throwing money" at things either. There are tax dollars we have already paid that are just sitting there unused for years, bec ause some people wanted to use them on a pool. I would rather see that spent on actual teaching than on a luxurious pool, and that is the frustration. Our school has been taken over by a tiny group wanting to blow a quarter billion on stuff we don't need. The kids I see on this TV show need more one-on-one, and more hours in class (summer school). We should be spending on that.

Christopher Bell  

Posted: September 24th, 2018 10:28 AM

My concern with series is it shows AA students on academic margin - with little relevance or participation in honors/AP etc. First, this actually makes school look bad - and reinforces the sterotypes. There are some amazing black/brown kids who are at top of the class that come from humble backgrounds - just feel like that part of the story needs to told as well.

Christopher Bell  

Posted: September 24th, 2018 10:11 AM

Tom - this is not only a resource question - it is radical org change/redesign, holding teachers and parents accountable etc. Many of the kids shown are far behind by high school and frankly no amount of money will help them catch up. Never forget when I assisted in my sons middle school English class. The 7th grade assignment was to write a two paragraph paper on hurricane. I recall many of kids of color could not form a sentence with verb and noun. I was shocked and asked my AA son what is going on - he said kids just get passed along. So the real question is does OP have the politically will power to make really tough choices, fire low performing teachers etc

Christopher Bell  

Posted: September 24th, 2018 9:59 AM

The series the has done a excellent job laying out the core issues and significant gaps. What I hope is established in last 4 episodes is plan of attack to solve issue in a different ways and highlight a few very high performing AA students (there are many who are applying to Harvard etc) . Long term this is about results - and my question is what has really changed?

Tom MacMillan  

Posted: September 24th, 2018 9:48 AM

After watching the first 5 episodes, I am trying to figure out why OPRF has been sitting on $100 million in tax dollars that we already paid to them, which have sat unused for several years now. We paid that money to help kids at the school learn, and the money is being held hostage by people wanting a new olympic pool while they figure out how to force us to build it for them. These kids need more teaching help, summer school and after school help. Not swimming. Teaching can be done in the existing classrooms, with money being spent on teaching staff not pools. It is time to imagine life without a swim team or a fancy pool for 100 kids, where the rest of the kids are prepped for life better. The Imagine / Pool group has got to be kicked to the curb so we can get on with actually helping these kids.

John Duffy  

Posted: September 24th, 2018 8:06 AM

Michael, Your reviews continue to bring special insights, especially for white readers like me. One reminder you importantly invoke for me is that critically race analysis must be applied to the white dominant culture that surrounds our school and limits the life experiences of our black students. In 2003, DePaul sociologist Theodore Manley examined black identity and how it plays a vital role in the success of African American students and families. It long past time for our white community, and our schools, to examine whiteness, which usually only occurs as background, as your point out, rather that a central component that consciously or unconsciously fosters racial inequities. Looking forward to your next review.

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