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'America To Me' Looks at Racial Inequities Through the Eyes of Students
August 26, 2018  | By David Hinckley

America To Me, an unsentimental examination of race relations at a high school on the outskirts of Chicago, reminds us bluntly that having all the pieces on the board doesn’t mean you’ve solved the puzzle.

A 10-part series that premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. ET on Starz, America To Me in one sense confirms that today’s teenagers are wrestling with the same issues as their parents, grandparents, and great-great-great grandparents.

How does a country whose mission statement declares “all men are created equal” reconcile a long-embedded tradition of too often acting as if precisely the opposite were true?

Can a scale that far askew ever truly be balanced? If so, how?

America To Me, whose title is drawn from a Langston Hughes quote and also inevitably evokes the powerful ballad “The House I Live In,” leaves debate on those broader matters to academics and historians. Instead, it talks with students, teachers, and parents at Oak Park and River Forest High School (OPRF) and lets the viewer decide how hopeful to feel.

Purely by numbers and tradition, Oak Park and River Forest should be a national model of success for integration and diversity.

The school is 55% white, 27% black, and 9% Latino. It draws many of its students from Oak Park, a community that defied the white flight movement of the 1960s and instead accepted housing integration.  

Because a lot of white folks stayed in Oak Park, the community and its public high school are places where people of all colors live, work, and study together.

Or, America To Me asks, do they?

The filmmakers talk primarily with black students – because, they say, white students were reluctant to go on camera talking about race.

The students who do speak out reflect a wide range of demeanors and different levels of hope, wariness, and determination. What they all agree on is this: Black students have a different experience at OPRF than white students.

America To Me doesn’t assemble a panel of experts to debate the nuances of student placement or teacher attitudes. It’s more anecdotal, taking snapshots of individual student experiences and seeking observations from teachers who are clearly trying hard not to let stereotypes affect the way they treat their students.

Ke’Shawn, a junior, seems to be bright and unmotivated. He fails a test and says he doesn’t care. He says there’s no point because he knows where the game ends for black students, so why bother to play it?

Are these just excuses? Is he using a legitimate problem to rationalize his own indifference? There are unmotivated white students, too. Is he as much kin to them as to frustrated black students?

Students Charles and Tiara have different attitudes and a common goal: They’d love to make a career in music. As a teacher, do you nurture that dream? If you point out that there are more secure career paths, does that crush or bruise the dream? Would you say the same thing to a white student?

Terrence, Tiara’s cousin, hovers on the line between “regular” classes and special ed. Would special education serve him better or would it be another case of taking the easy path and dumping the black student there?

America To Me doesn’t show white-only drinking fountains. Instead, in this show as in American life, a thousand little things – a word here, a reminder there – make it clear that color-blindness is a work in progress even among well-intentioned people at a demographically solid institution.

America To Me inevitably raises the tense, unavoidable question of whether, in the larger historical context, America is moving in the right direction. Over the last 60 or 70 years, the span of the modern Civil Rights movement, have we taken steps that will someday deliver us to our elusive national creed?

Critics from several points on the ideological spectrum say no. They say our failure to reach that promised land despite decades of effort means the effort has been misguided.

Others say these are just simply long roads and we don’t know how many we must walk down before we arrive.

The primary value of America To Me may lie in its oddly simple focus: It aspires only to document one moment in the present, letting the implications fall where they will.

It’s not a slick, breezy production. It requires the viewer to pay attention and sometimes put up with the frustrating things all teenagers will say.

But in the end, however, scattered the pieces may seem, this remains true: If they’re not all on the board, our chances of solving the puzzle are zero.

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