Wrestling with Diversity and Education in American Promise

Our nation’s news teems with issues of diversity. The Department of Justice is suing Louisiana over its voucher program, claiming it slows the desegregation process. The racial disparities in New York City’s gifted and talented programs have put the spotlight on both the district’s admissions process and the locations of programs. In Washington, D.C., the D.C. Public School District is bracing for a fight as it embarks on the process of redrawing school boundaries and feeder patterns. This process is wrought with undertones of race and class, particularly as it could limit access to some of the district’s best schools—most of which are located in the wealthy, majority-white neighborhoods of the Upper Northwest quadrant. In The Diverse Schools Dilemma, released last year, Michael Petrilli raises the issue of whether or not diverse schools can successfully meet the needs of diverse student bodies. When issues of race and class get involved, the question of who goes to school with whom can become explosive, awash in both politics and emotion.

The film American Promise, which opened in New York on October 18, opens in D.C. on November 1, and will premiere on PBS on February 3, 2014, surfaces many of these difficult issues at the intersection of race, class, and gender. Yet what I appreciate most about the film is that is raises these issues without offering commentary, much less solutions. Instead, it leaves the viewer to wrestle with uncomfortable, unanswered questions, the kind that—channeling Dr. Martin Luther King—create the “constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth.”

The film follows two middle-class black boys, Idris and Seun, on their 13-year journey through school. Precocious 5-year-olds, both are admitted to New York City’s prestigious, mostly white, Dalton School. Over the years Idris and Seun struggle academically, socially, and personally. Sometimes their status as black males in a predominantly white school seems to at issue; at other times it is simply their very different life circumstances.

A number of important questions about diversity are raised throughout. The boys part ways in high school – Idris remains at Dalton while Seun transfers to the mostly black Benjamin Banneker Academy. Yet both graduate and at the end of the film are on their way to college. It’s not clear who is better off in the end – or whether it matters. In one particularly thoughtful moment the principal at Banneker wonders why black children are encouraged to go to predominantly white schools to increase diversity, but white children are seldom encouraged to move to predominantly black schools to achieve the same effect.

We talk a lot about achieving diversity—in schools, neighborhoods, and workplaces—in this country. Being around those with life experiences different from your own can break down barriers and broaden perspectives. Yet too often we find ourselves in places and situations that lack diversity.

We’ve tried a number of solutions over the years to deal with diversity in schools, from mandated busing to desegregate schools to magnet programs to minority recruitment campaigns at colleges and universities. We “teach tolerance” to students, and instill “culturally responsive pedagogy” in our teachers.

Many such initiatives have been successful. But we have miles to go.

Cities continue to grapple with racially and economically segregated schools and districts. The ongoing gentrification of many of these urban areas heat the racial and class tensions already approaching the boiling point. The return of many white, upper-middle-class, educated parents—and their young children—to city centers has caused some urban districts, like those in Philadelphia, Chicago, and Boston, to actively encourage these families to send their children to local district schools. However, while gentrification has some benefits, including economic revitalization and increases in property taxes, it does little to alleviate issues of diversity. In fact, district efforts to “recruit” middle-class white families can further marginalize existing low-income, minority students and families, and lead to further segregation if white and middle-class families cluster in the same schools.

But despite the definite issues, this film made me wonder if our diversity conversations turn too quickly to searching for solutions to our longstanding lack-of-diversity problem. Perhaps we need to sit with this “nonviolent tension” a while longer and spend time in challenging discussions and reflection about the issue of race itself, thinking through its history and its consequences on our lives today.

The premise of the film hinges on this bias in favor of action. Dalton’s historic lack of diversity prompted the school to actively seek out high-performing minority students. While Idris and Seun certainly benefited from their time at Dalton, it was not without struggles. At one point in the film, as Seun prepares to leave Dalton to complete high school elsewhere, one of Dalton’s administrators wonders, “There’s a cultural disconnect between independent schools and African American boys…What are we doing as a school that is not supporting these guys?” That is certainly an important question to ask. But I also think spending time initially, sitting with these difficult tensions, could mitigate future challenges like those faced by Idris and Seun.

Such “nonviolent tension” can create deeper empathy and understanding—the ingredients of true change. For diversity to be about the way we live with and among one another, instead of a new program to implement, seems the ultimate goal.

Kelly Robson is a research assistant at Bellwether Education Partners. She taught middle school for 5 years, including 2 years in DC Public Schools.

Last Updated


Notify Me When Education Next

Posts a Big Story

Business + Editorial Office

Program on Education Policy and Governance
Harvard Kennedy School
79 JFK Street, Cambridge, MA 02138
Phone (617) 496-5488
Fax (617) 496-4428
Email Education_Next@hks.harvard.edu

For subscription service to the printed journal
Phone (617) 496-5488
Email subscriptions@educationnext.org

Copyright © 2024 President & Fellows of Harvard College