On Thursday, December 4, the Sewickley Series presented a documentary film American Promise that traces the educational journey of two black boys, from Kindergarten through their matriculation to college. In exploring the sometimes wrenching path these boys followed at an independent school in New York City, the filmmakers (whose eldest son is one of the two boys who are the subject of the film) open their home and their lives to the scrutiny of the outside world and by doing so raise a series of important questions, questions that are important not just for independent schools like Sewickley Academy but questions that are important for us as a nation. In the aftermath of Ferguson, MO, the Eric Garner case in New York City, and the recent conclusions of a federal investigation into the wrongful death of a 12-year-old child at the hands of police in Cleveland, OH, there is an urgency to our thinking about race and how our various points of view inform the way we see and experience the world.
During the post-film question-and-answer session, an audience member commented that she had on occasion received communications from her sons’ school about boisterous and inappropriate behavior of the kind the boys in the film were also accused of engaging in. The mom asked, “…wasn’t it possible that, instead of the determining factor being race, it could be that the report of behavior issues was really a function of gender?” The filmmaker, Michele Stephenson, replied that the research is very clear: black boys are much more likely to be singled out for behavioral issues than other children and, in fact, that black boys are far more likely to be suspended from Kindergarten than other children. These comments were affirmed by another panelist, Dr. Todd Allen, professor of communication studies and visual arts at Grove City College, who also serves on his local public school district board.
The parent in the audience, who was white, continued to press her point, to which Stephenson answered, “[sic] you have the privilege of being white, of not having to wonder whether your children are being singled out for their race.”