Documentary: “The Central Park Five”

There is an excellent, devastating, and powerful documentary out now in some theaters and on InDemand on cable, called “The Central Park Five.” The film, by Ken Burns, David McMahon and Sarah Burns, tells the story of the five black and Latino teenagers who, in 1989, were arrested and charged with brutally attacking and raping a white female jogger in Central Park. News media swarmed the case, referring to the incident as a “wilding” and to the young men as a “wolfpack.” The five young men spent years in prison before the truth about what really happened became clear. Here is a short (2:27) trailer:

Go see it if you can get to a theater, or call it up on your cable TV. Even though this documentary was inexplicably not included in the short list for Academy Awards, I’m certain that this film will be important in college classrooms for many years to come.

Deconstructing Racism: Call for Documentary Filmmakers

The W.K. Kellogg Foundation is doing some innovative grant-making in the area of racial equity. They recently awarded the Calhoun School here in New York City a $275,000 grant to make a documentary film called WHAT KIDS OF COLOR KNOW & WHITE KIDS DON’T – DECONSTRUCTING RACISM.

As I’ve written about elsewhere, I think visual media and documentaries specifically are central to how we learn now.  While I keep a list here of race-themed documentaries, there simply aren’t enough of these kinds of titles. So, I’m delighted to see the Kellogg Foundation supporting this important work, and am happy to share the following call for documentary filmmakers.


Mov(i)e it
(Creative Commons License photo credit: zeligfilm )

A documentary filmmakers’ competition is underway to identify a team of 2-3 young professional filmmakers interested in writing, directing, shooting and editing a film currently titled:  What Kids of Color Know & White Kids Don’t – Deconstructing Racism (working title).

The documentary film component of this project is slated to have a total production budget in the vicinity of $275,000. This includes stipends for the filmmaker/director, writer and editor; equipment, camera crew and sound personnel, soundtrack, voice-over, transcripts, graphics & animation, outside footage, stock, etc.  It is anticipated that the film will have a year-long production timetable.  Once completed, it is the producer’s objective to submit this documentary to US and international film festivals and for possible consideration by the Academy as a documentary feature.

The cast of the film will be upper middle- and high-school kids from NYC independent and public schools talking about white privilege and institutionalized racism; select adult talking-heads may be included.  The filmmakers(s) will participate actively in and help to design the casting process.  Filming will take place mainly in New York City during the 2012-2013 academic year.  This is not an exposé of the challenges faced in public schools or an indictment of the public or private school system.  It is an incisive and targeted look at how white kids and kids of color confront – and how they are confronted by — race and racism in the context of contemporary American society.

Requirements for consideration:

*   Draft a detailed treatment and summary story-line reflecting how you, as a filmmaker, envision approaching this project — capturing and conveying how white kids and kids of color confront and are confronted by issues of white privilege and institutionalized racism in contemporary American society in a documentary film format.
*   The length of the film will be between 1-2 hours.
*   The film will be live-action with some animation to illustrate certain elements.
*   The primary audience will be upper-middle and high school students and by extension, their teachers and parents.

If interested, applicants should submit a treatment outline and summary story-line, a sample production schedule, production personnel bios and contact information to:

Doc Film Committee
ATTN:  David Alpert, Producer
The Calhoun School
433 West End Avenue
New York, NY  10024

Proposal Submission deadline:  July 15, 2012


You are welcome to include links to your work or to send a DVD compilation as a part of your submission materials.


Many analyses of racism focus on its negative effects on people of color and ignore the notion of “whiteness” that is embedded in racial hierarchies.  However, assumptions about racial inferiority could not exist without the concept of superiority.  Ideological racism includes strongly positive images of the white self as well as strongly negative images of the racial “others” Feagin, J. (2000) Racist America Roots, current realities, and future reparations, New York, Routledge (p. 33)

The late Dr. Derrick Bell said, “What Kids of Color Know & White Kids Don’t – Deconstructing Racism, is a worthy effort in a very long and still far from successful struggle.  What I hope will be carried out in your project is that learning about race is mostly getting white kids to understand the array of privileges that whiteness provides them whether or not earned or deserved.  Blacks as the minority in numbers, power, and legitimacy, have to have and exercise on a daily basis their knowledge and understanding of how whites exercise their property right in whiteness without really thinking about it.  Recognition of these “rights” is more important than either reforming or rejecting them.   I hope your project will also focus on students of color, preferably the African Americans, who learned about whites the hard way.  In today’s world, these lessons are more subtle than blatant….

What Kids of Color Know and White Kids Don’t: Deconstructing Racism will have a direct and lasting impact by changing, early on, how students learn about white privilege and institutionalized racism.  This includes a particular focus on racial inequity as a historical and foundational component of U.S. culture, and a commitment to the critical analysis and dismantling of racist attitudes, beliefs and policies inherent in our school and society.  The documentary film will support the national visibility, legitimacy and credibility of each program component.  In addition, the film will be presented at national and international film festivals, again assuring it marketing and distribution opportunities, critical acclaim and the education endorsements necessary to secure its active use in classrooms.

What Kids of Color Know & White Kids Don’t – Deconstructing Racism unfolds with the personal stories of students confronting how white privilege and racism affects their sense of self.   The students’ family backgrounds provide a starting point; schools provide a diverse stage for the action.

The students who make up the cast of characters will be chosen not only because their experience mirrors an aspect of our society, but also because they have the ability to tell that story in a way that makes us care.

The piece will draw the audience into the student’s struggle; the threads of their narrative come together as we see all our characters looking at their differences side by side.  The convictions, the frustration, and the emotion each student brings into a larger context of history and group struggle surface to engage the viewer into this struggle.   Just as our characters came into the process with passion about their particular point of view, none of them will walk away from the experience untouched.  Nor will the audience.

Race is so sensitive and so difficult to encompass because often our words don’t match our actions.  Racism is built into every aspect of our culture, and deconstructing that social arrangement is like defusing a bomb.

No documentary has attempted so deep an emotional journey into Race exclusively from the lives and experience of middle school and high school students.  It’s a way for young people all over the country to gain key insights, just as it’s also an angle which makes an adult audience already tired of the subject pay attention once again.

Current program advisors include:

*   David Addams, Executive Director, Oliver Scholars Program
*   John Allman, Head, Trinity School, Manhattan, NY
*   Pat Bassett, President, National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS)
*   Lisa Barbaris, Artistic Director, True Colors Foundation
*   Harold Eugene Batiste III, Leadership Education and Diversity Team, NAIS
*   Joel Coen, Academy Award Winning Filmmaker
*   Kate Davis, documentary filmmaker
*   Matt Damon, actor, screenwriter, activist
*   Bruce L. Dennis, Head, Packer Collegiate Institute, Brooklyn, NY
*   Rhonda Durham, Executive Director, Independent Schools Association of the Southwest
*   Troy Duster, Silver Professor of Sociology, New York University
*   Kathy Egmont, The Children’s Storefront School, Manhattan, NY
*   Mary Gaines, Head, Metropolitan Montessori School
*   David Heilbroner, documentary filmmaker
*   Cyndi Lauper, singer, songwriter, actress
*   Chris Marblo, Head, The Town School, Manhattan, NY
*   Francis McDormand, Academy Award Winning actress
*   Stephen Robinson, President, Southern Association of Independent Schools
*   Patricia Williams, Author, Professor, Columbia University School of Law, MacArthur Fellow, July 2000

In addition to this feature length documentary film, the project is also producing a nationally distributed kindergarten – 12th grade companion curriculum and social-networking interactive website.

The press release announcing the W.K. Kellogg Foundation’s grant in support of this project is attached for reference.

All rights will be owned by and be the property of
The Calhoun School, 433 West End Avenue, New York, NY  10024.

Everyday Racism

This short clip (7:08) is the second half of a story that the ABC “20/20” news show did called “True Colors.” It features Julianne Malveaux as one of the experts. The whole piece is 19 minutes long (part 1 is here) and is one of the most powerful teaching tools I’ve ever used for demonstrating how everyday racism works:

Basically, what the ABC crews does is set up a “matched study” – a white guy and a black guy are matched on every quality except skin color – and films the results. They put these two gentlemen, both recent college grads, in St. Louis, Missouri to establish themselves. They are sent to find work and a place to live. Hidden cameras record the very different treatment that they receive at almost every turn. It’s a compelling look at how everyday racism operates and the way that it “grinds exceedingly small,” as Malveaux says.

You can purchase a licensed copy (the one above is definitely a pirated copy) of the full video here. Unfortunately, the official copy is priced for institutional buyers ($595), not the individual user. The original story aired in 1991, about the time current college sophomores were born, so the video is vulnerable to being dismissed as “the kind of thing that happened a long time ago, in the distant past.”

Of course, those of us who study racism know that this continues to happen and it continues to “grind exceedingly small” for those who experience it. It’s definitely time for some enterprising investigative reporter to re-make this classic video about everyday racism.

Broken on All Sides: New Documentary about Race and Criminal Justice

Matthew Pillischer has just completed a new documentary about race and criminal justice in that is worth checking out. Here’s a trailer for the film (6:58):

The film includes an interview with Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, which we’ve written about here before. While most third year law students are busy studying for the bar exam, Matthew Pillischer found time to produce and direct a documentary film about this important social justice issue. I don’t know how he did that, but I’m glad he did as his film promises to bring this important issue to a much wider audience.

Exposing the Real Guilty Party: School Funding and Racial Disparities

Progressive and mainstream media websites in the last few weeks have been abuzz with news of an African American mother in Ohio who was arrested, charged, sentenced to jail time and subject to a $30,500 fine for falsifying records to send her child to a high quality white school outside of her district, rather than the Black one to which her child was assigned. This story represents the pinnacle of racism in a society where, for minorities, sending your child to a school to which he or she might be able to gain access to a quality education is a crime.

We must look at the reason why this brave mother risked jail time to send her child to a white (read: better) school? How is it in America, parents who only want the best for their children have to lie about their address so that their children have a shot at the American dream? And why is no one talking about the fundamental reasons for educational inequality – the school funding structure that overtly privileges white children from wealthy families. This insidious racism masks inequality behind white picket fences, immaculately trimmed hedges and pristine landscaping. This façade allows us to ignore the fact that schools are funded based on the values of the homes surrounding them. No other nation in the world does this, and to such deleterious effect.

What this story has finally done is highlight the central cause of racial disparities in test scores and graduation rates – school funding, the one factor that seems to go ignored in much of the debate regarding “what’s wrong with our nation’s schools.” For the last six months, since the release of the Davis Guggenheim’s documentary, Waiting for Superman, TV, radio, and print news have interrogated the reasons for low minority performance. But only very rarely, have the ways in which we fund our nation’s schools mentioned. Instead, blame is usually placed on the usual suspects, those with the least power within the system – teachers , parents, and the children themselves. The racist school system, the one that has consigned minority students to inferior education since the moment African slaves arrived on America’s shores, is ignored. Many either believe that educational inequality was wiped with the Brown vs. Board of Education decision, or have forgotten that schools were shuttered in many states so that white children could attend “private” (though often covertly state-funded) schools and that Northern schools were not legally desegregated until the late 1960s and early 1970s. And although few white adults have children with friends of different races, we somehow fail to address the fact that our schools are now more segregated than before Brown and during apartheid South Africa.

The reason for this is a confluence of historical and contemporary factors, all of which are intricately woven into a tapestry of place-based racism that has left minority children isolated in urban areas with schools receiving a fraction of the money their peers receive in white areas. The racist policies of redlining and urban renewal trapped many African American in urban areas while restrictive covenants and sundown towns kept them out of suburbs, except of course to work for whites. Displaced into crowded ghettos and housing projects, Blacks lived in areas condemned simply for the color of the residents, rather than the quality of the homes (though this too was often inferior, and cost more than similar apartments in white areas). Those who did own their homes did so in these areas were homes were valued lower because of the “character” (read: color) of the neighborhood. Unable to buy homes in white neighborhoods, these towns have remained white, with high property values, resulting in much more funds available for the schools. In urban areas, where most people rent, values of homes are lower, and businesses receive tax cuts, the revenue simply does not exist to provide children with the same amount of money as their suburban counterparts. As a result, minority children in urban districts often receive a fraction of what white students in suburbs wear.

And these funding differences have real effects on students’ education and educational attainment, Minority students have more inexperienced teachers, older schools, less technology, more crowded classrooms, less playground space, and fewer basic resources such as paper, pencils, and books than white children. It was these resources that Ms. Kelley Williams-Bolar sought when she enrolled her child in a white school. Though recently released because her case was dismissed, she must spend three years on probation. More importantly, this episode raises the simple question of why, in the United States of America, minority parents must risk jail time and fines by falsifying student addresses to allow their children access to the same high quality education white children receive automatically. And why, when we discuss schools, do we blame everyone and everything but the inequalities that force minority parents to do this if they want their children to be well educated?

The Black Press: Soldiers Without Swords

If the recent post about white journalists grappling with their own racism made you wonder about black journalists, California Newsreel may have some answers.

For a brief time, the folks at California Newsreel are making one of their films available for free viewing online.   The Black Press: Soldiers Without Swords (86 minutes, 1998) is a documentary by Stanley Nelson that is the first to chronicle the history of the Black press, including its central role in the construction of modern African American identity. It recounts the largely forgotten stories of generations of Black journalists who risked life and livelihood so African Americans could represent themselves in their own words and images.

It’s an excellent resource for teaching about news media, race and ethnicity, or popular culture.  It also comes with a facilitator guide with ideas for discussion questions.

Transracial Adoption Documentary: “Off and Running”

There are an estimated 1.5 million adopted children in the United States, over 2% of all U.S. children. Of those adoptions, approximately 8% are transracial adoptions, although reliable and recent data on this is difficult to come by. A compelling documentary called “Off and Running,” (POV) aired recently on PBS.   Here’s a short (2:36) clip:

Transracial adoption is controversial. In 1972, the National Association of Black Social Workers issued a statement that took “a vehement stand against the placements of black children in white homes for any reason,” calling transracial adoption “unnatural,” “artificial,” “unnecessary,” and proof that African-Americans continued to be assigned to “chattel status.”    However, a couple of mid-1990s laws prohibit race from determining adoption placement. The Howard M. Metzenbaum Multiethnic Placement Act of 1994  (MEPA), prohibits an adoption agency that receives Federal assistance from delaying or denying the placement of a child on the basis of the race, color, or national origin of the adoptive or foster parent, or the child involved.  And a 1996 change to MEPA, the Interethnic Adoption Provisions (IEP), forbids agencies from denying or delaying placement of a child for adoption solely on the basis of race or national origin.

Research about how adopted children do later in life, often called outcome studies, pretty consistently show that adopted kids do ok.   There’s comparatively little research on transracial adoption, but what there is suggests that these kids do ok, too.  One review of a dozen studies consistently indicate that approximately 75% of transracially adopted preadolescent and younger children adjust well in their adoptive homes. (Silverman, A.R. (1993). Outcomes of transracial adoption. The Future of Children, 3(1), 104-118.). A 1996 study  found that transracial adoption was not detrimental for the adopted child in terms of adjustment, self-esteem, academic achievement, peer relationships, parental and adult relationships.(Sharma, A.R., McGue, M.K. and Benson, P.L. (1996). The emotional and behavioral adjustment of United States adopted adolescents: part 1. An overview. Children & Youth Services Review, 18, 83-100.)

Still, transracial adoption within a society that is anything but post-racial means that it can be complicated, as Avery’s story in the documentary highlights.   For an excellent sociological analysis of transracial adoption that deftly combines personal insight with critical observations, I highly recommend Barbara Katz Rothman’s Weaving a Family: Untangling Race and Adoption (Beacon Press, 2006). And, if you’re a parent coming to terms with issues around transracial adoption, I also recommend the blog Love Isn’t Enough.

New Documentary: “Herskovitz at the Heart of Blackness”

There is a new documentary by Lewellyn Smith, Vincent Brown and Christine Herbes-Sommers, that should be of interest to scholars and students who want to learn about the early, anthropological study of race. The film takes a look at the career of Melville J. Herskovits, the pioneering Jewish American anthropologist of African Studies and controversial intellectual who established the first African Studies Center at an American university and authored, “The Myth of the Negro Past.” The filmmakers weave together a nuanced discussion of Jewish exile and immigration along with African and African American culture and identity. Here’s a short (3:15) clip:

The film is a co-production of Vital Pictures and the Independent Television Service (ITVS), Executive Producer for ITVS Sally Jo Fifer, and is distributed by California Newsreel. It’s 57 minutes long, so it’s a good length for use in the classroom. Really fascinating, highly recommended.

Powerful New Civil Rights Documentary: “Soundtrack for a Revolution”

While the nation will celebrate the holiday on Monday, today is the actual birthday of Martin Luther King. He would have been 81 years old today had he lived. There seems no more fitting way to celebrate than to share this new documentary about the music of the civil rights movement, “Soundtrack to a Revolution.” The film is on the short list for upcoming Academy Awards. Here is a short (about 2 minutes) trailer for the film:

I had the chance to see this film last weekend at the Tribeca Film Institute (random name-drop: Ruby Dee and Harry Belafonte were there). The film follows the story of the civil rights movement by charting the music that was most powerfully identified with it. There are moving, contemporary versions of classic songs sung by top musicians in studio settings and there are engaging, acapella renditions of these songs sung by the people who lived through the movement. My personal favorite was Richie Havens singing a civil rights ballad over images of civil rights pioneers – black and white – who were killed in the fight for racial justice.

It’s an excellent film that would be suitable for using in the classroom for teaching about race, political struggle and resistance, the civil rights movement, and Martin Luther King. In a Q&A session with the filmmakers following the screening, they noted that educating young people about the civil rights movement was one of their intended purposes in creating the film. Sadly, they also noted that in pre-screening the film in high schools that a majority of students and their teachers (!) did not know most of the civil rights leaders featured in the film.

If you’re considering using the film in a college classroom, I have a couple of companion book recommendations. The first is a wonderfully creative way of looking at social movements through the art that inspired them, called The Art of Protest: Culture and Activism from the Civil Rights Movement to the Streets of Seattle,by T.V. Reed. The second is a compelling analysis of the way television was used by the civil rights movement, and in particular, how prescient Dr. King was in his use of television, called Black, White and in Color: Television and Black Civil Rights,by Sasha Torres. Both books are excellent, and suitable for advanced undergraduates or graduate students, and will further elaborate some of the themes addressed in the film.

Systemic Racism & the “Race to Execution”

The New York Times reported recently that a leading group, The American Law Institute, which created the intellectual framework for the current system of capital punishment almost 50 years ago, pronounced the project a failure and walked away from it (h/t to Sister Scholar).  Even though there were other important changes in news about the death penalty last year, including that the number of death sentences continued to fall, Ohio switched to a single chemical for lethal injections and New Mexico repealed its death penalty entirely,  but none of these changes was as significant as the institute’s move, which represents “a tectonic shift in legal theory.”  The WSJ has more analysis of this issue here, suggesting we’re the throes of an upheaval in the administration of the death penalty.

We write here often about systemic racism and what that means.  For compelling evidence about how race is built in to the very fabric of U.S. society, one needn’t look much further than the evidence about the race and the death penalty.    Race is the single greatest factor in who lives and who dies when it comes to death penalty cases. A black defendant who kills a white victim is up to 30 times more likely to be sentenced to death than a white defendant who kills a black victim.

The imposition of the death penalty is even more likely when there is a black defendant and a predominantly white jury.  Most minority defendants, especially in death penalty cases, are judged by predominantly white jurors.   White male jurors can be especially persuasive in death penalty cases.  Researcher Bowers, Steiner and Sandys (2001) analyzed cases in which a black defendant was accused of murdering a white victim found that the racial composition of the jury matters in death penalty cases.  Once the proportion of white male jurors reaches 70%, the death penalty is far more likely.

The U.S. Supreme Court took this kind of data into consideration when it ruled in 1972 in the Furman v. George case and struck down the death penalty as “arbitrary and capricious.”  Then, in 1987, the Supreme Court ruled again on the death penalty.  In the McCleskey v. Kemp case, the court refused to overturn an individual decision to execute a particular man solely based on the bias in the system.   Basically, what the Supreme Court basically decided that it didn’t want to look at the “statistics about race” because it wouldn’t consider the social science evidence in the case.  The evidence, had they considered it,  overwhelmingly showed a pattern of racial bias in who lives and who dies in death penalty cases.

instead, what the Supreme Court was suggesting was that they wanted to look at whether race played a role in each individual case, not at systemic racism.   In some ways, what the Supreme Court was doing with this case was rejecting social science in the law and declaring that racial inequality is ineradicable and inevitable.

This is where the The American Law Institute comes in. They were attempting to “fix” what had been broken with the 1987 McCleskey v. Kemp decision, and see if there was some way to administer the death penalty in way that didn’t just reinforce racial discrimination already in place.  Now, the organization has decided to abandon the project and admitted it was a failure.  Another way of looking at this news is that this is further evidence that the death penalty is deeply, systematically racist and should be abolished.  

There is a powerful documentary that tells this story in a fresh way called “Race to Execution” and it’s directed by Rachel Lyon, narrated by Charles Ogletree. While it’s been out a couple of years now, it recently re-aired on my local PBS station and I was moved by it once again.   It’s a really powerful, and nuanced, telling of human stories of those affected by the death penalty interwoven with the court cases and social science research about race and the death penalty.  (If you’re considering it for the classroom, there is lots of great additional material here.)

If race is the single greatest factor in who lives and who dies, and now the leading legal organization in the nation has admitted defeat in trying to change that, isn’t it time to abolish the death penalty and put an end to state-sponsored racism?