As part of an educational Black History Month program, Glen Allen High School in Henrico County, Va., showed its 1,500-some students an animated four-minute video called “Structural Discrimination: The Unequal Opportunity Race” last week during a schoolwide assembly.
But when parents heard about the video's content, which was produced by the African American Policy Forum over 10 years ago, many reacted in outcry. The backlash was so intense that the school has since banned it, labeling “racially divisive.”
"They are sitting there watching a video that is dividing them up from a racial standpoint. It's a white guilt kind of video," Don Blake, whose granddaughter attended the assembly, told WWBT news. "I think somebody should be held accountable for this."
So what exactly was so contentious about the video?
It begins with four athletes about to kick off a track race. Two of them are white and two are not. When the race begins after the starting gun fires, the two minorities are blocked from running while their white fellow racers sprint forward. As they wait, they’re confronted with words in bold letters: “slavery,” “manifest destiny,” “genocide,” “segregation,” etc.
All the while, the white runners run by lap after lap, eventually picking up batons with dollar symbols. Increasing in size, the batons are passed from older white runners to younger ones. When the minority runners are finally allowed to run, they encounter more obstacles, including rainstorms labeled “discrimination,” rocks as “poor schooling,” a ditch for “underemployment,” and metal bars that represent the “school to prison pipeline.”
In the end, a white runner on a conveyor belt holding a water bottle that says “Yale” wins the race. The video wraps up with the message, “Affirmative action helps level the playing field.”
At first, the school defended its decision to show the film.
“A segment of the video was one component of a thoughtful discussion in which all viewpoints were encouraged,” the school said in a statement. “As always, we are welcoming of feedback from students and their families, and we address concerns directly as they come forward.”
But after “numerous emails and phone calls objecting to the video,” administrators ultimately conceded.
“The Henrico School Board and administration consider this to be a matter of grave concern,” School Board Chair Micky Ogburn said in a statement released to The Washington Post. “School leaders have been instructed not to use the video in our schools. In addition, steps are being taken to prevent the use of racially divisive materials in the future. We do apologize to those who were offended and for the unintended impact on our community.”
Among students, 37 percent of whom are minorities, reactions were mixed.
“A lot of people thought it was offensive to white people and made them feel bad about being privileged,” Kenny Manning, a student at Glen Allen High, told WRIC news. “Others thought that it was good to get the information out there. There is oppression going on in the world, and that needs to be looked at with a magnifying glass, I guess.”
Luke Harris, co-founder of the African American Policy Forum and a political science professor at Vassar College, told The Washington Post that the video is about fixing damaged institutions and wasn't meant to promote “favoritism for damaged individuals.” He said the backlash from white parents wasn’t surprising.
“The anger is a reaction that we expect to get from some Americans, because we live in a society that doesn’t have honest discourse about race,” Professor Harris told the Post.
Students and faculty at Oregon's Portland Community College encountered similar backlash last month when they announced plans to designate April as "Whiteness History Month," in order to spark dialogue around issues of white privileged and institutional racism. Although organizers specified that they were not planning to target or shame white people, the idea was met with anger and confusion as news of it spread across the Internet.
“I don’t think there is any way you approach race in America without contention,” Randal Jelks, an American and African American Studies professor at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, told The Christian Science Monitor at the time.
“People try to avoid contention. But slavery was contentious and brutal. Native removal was contentious and brutal. So there’s no way you can avoid conflict in this issue.”