A Virginia school district has banned the use of an educational video about racial inequality after some parents complained that its messaging is racially divisive.
The four-minute, animated video — “Structural Discrimination: The Unequal Opportunity Race” — was shown last week to students at an assembly at Glen Allen High School, in Henrico County, as a part of the school’s Black History Month program.
The video contextualizes historic racial disparity in the United States using the metaphor of a race track in which runners face different obstacles depending upon their racial background. It has been shown hundreds of thousands of times at schools and workshops across the country since it was created more than a decade ago, according to the African American Policy Forum, which produced it.
“The video is designed for the general public,” said Luke Harris, co-founder of the African American Policy Forum and an associate professor of political science at Vassar College. “We produced something you could show in elementary and secondary schools or in college studies courses.”
He added: “We found that the video has a huge impact on the people that we’re showing it to. Most of us know very little about the social history of the United States and its contemporary impact. It was designed as a tool to throw light on American history.”
But in Glen Allen, about 14 miles north of Richmond, some parents complained, calling it a “white guilt video.”
Henrico County Public Schools officials initially defended the video, saying it was “one component of a thoughtful discussion in which all viewpoints were encouraged.” But after the story began to spread nationally, school officials switched gears, labeling the video “racially divisive” two days later.
“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. “We are making every effort to respond to our community. It is our goal to prevent the recurrence of this type of event. 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.”
Ravi K. Perry — an associate professor of political science at Virginia Commonwealth University and President of the National Association for Ethnic Studies — told The Post that he worked closely with school officials over several months to plan the presentation, which he also moderated. The video, he said, was just one element of a 30-minute-long, interactive presentation that was shown to two separate groups, each with around 1,000 students. He asked students to fill out a “group membership profile” and write a poem describing their identity. He said the students were “fully engaged” and the response afterwards was overwhelmingly positive.
The objective, Perry said, was to allow students to “engage American history through the lens of African Americans and other marginalized groups” and to understand that “we all have multiple identities.”
The idea for the presentation came about, he said, after a racist song was played over the loud speakers at a football game in October in which the visiting team was from a predominately black high school. The song, a racist parody of the theme song from Disney’s “Duck Tales,” included 13 racial epithets in a single minute, according to Raw Story.
“I feel extremely grateful to the principal and her staff for being courageous enough to provide a comprehensive educational experience on race in America,” he said. “That is something that you should be applauded for doing and not something that millions of people across the country should find distasteful.”
He added: “Had I been presenting at an environment where the state standardized curriculum had fully integrated the experience of African Americans, then perhaps the material selected to present to students would have been different. Because the information that many students nationwide are learning about race in America is limited or wrong, it’s important to provide them with historical context.”
The scope of the backlash remains unknown, but the statement noted that “school division leaders” received “numerous emails and phone calls objecting to the video.”
Among the parents who found the video problematic was Don Blake, whose granddaughter attended the Glen Allen High assembly, according to NBC affiliate WWBT.
“They are sitting there watching a video that is dividing them up from a racial standpoint,” Blake told the station. “It’s a white guilt kind of video. I think somebody should be held accountable for this.”
Kenny Manning, a student at Glen Allen High, told ABC affiliate WRIC that reaction on campus was mixed.
“A lot of people thought it was offensive to white people and made them feel bad about being privileged,” Manning said. “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.”
The video begins with four athletes — two of them white, two of them non-white — taking their marks before a race. After the starting gun fires, the two non-white runners are forced to remain in the starting blocks while their white counterparts begin running. The non-white runners are hit with words such as “slavery,” “broken treaties,” “genocide” and “segregation” as the white runners pass them by.
The white runners eventually pick up dollar-symbol-marked batons that grow in size and are eventually passed off to younger white runners who enter the race.
It takes more than a minute until the non-white competitors are allowed to begin running. Not long after they do, they are confronted by overwhelming physical obstacles, such as a rainstorm, rocks, a large hole in the track and sharks.
Each obstacle, the viewer learns, symbolizes real-life barriers to success, such as discrimination, poor schooling, standardized tests, racial profiling, the school-to-prison pipeline and housing discrimination. The video shows that these obstacles result in shortened lifespans for the non-white runners.
A white male runner then crosses the finish line ahead of everyone else on a rapidly moving conveyor belt. He holds a water bottle labeled “Yale” and the word “privilege” hovers nearby. A white female runner finishes shortly behind him.
As the video ends, viewers are left with a written message: “Affirmative action helps level the playing field.”
Harris, the African American Policy Forum co-founder, told The Post that the video is intended to show that race-conscious programs are not designed to create “favoritism for damaged individuals,” but instead are about creating remedies for damaged institutions. The backlash from some white parents in Virginia didn’t surprise him, he said.
“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,” Harris said. “Our society is as heterogeneous as any on the planet, but American social history from a multicultural, multiracial perspective is just something that people have not been exposed to.
“When someone highlights that message, some people go after the messenger.”
Henrico Superintendent Pat Kinlaw said in the district’s statement that the video presentation at Glen Allen High remains under investigation.
“The matter continues to be under review internally after first coming to the attention of school division leadership on the evening of Thursday, Feb. 4,” Kinlaw said. “While we as educators do not object to difficult and constructive conversations about American history and racial discourse past and present, we understand why many people feel this video in particular was not the best way to deliver such an important lesson.”
Perry said it was unfortunate that school officials had chosen not to use anger about the video to engage in a larger dialogue about race within their community and instead chosen to support the views of the loudest voices.
“In politics,” he told The Post, “that’s what we call ‘pandering.’”
“It’s where you assume, for example, that the only types of folks you should be paying attention to are the ones who call your office. If you only pay attention to the people who call or email you, you are immediately shutting off the people who don’t have the time or the resources to get in touch and that goes to the heart of what was being talked about in that video.”