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‘America to Me’ shows why all the black kids sit together in the cafeteria

Integration is just the first step in closing the racial achievement gap

A new 10-part documentary series from Starz has found a way to answer an old question about integrated schools: Why are all the black kids sitting together in the cafeteria?

America to Me may take its name from the Langston Hughes poem Let America Be America Again, but its ethos comes from the 1997 book by Beverly Daniel Tatum, Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations About Race. The series begins airing Sunday night on Starz.

In the series, creator, director, and executive producer Steve James (Hoop Dreams) provides a deeply reported look at Oak Park and River Forest High School, a well-funded public school of about 3,700 students. Oak Park and River Forest is integrated and it’s home not just to white students (55 percent) and black students (27 percent), but a significant population of kids from multiracial and multiethnic backgrounds. It is situated in an enclave of liberalism just outside Chicago. If ever there was a high school that should double as a melting pot, it’s Oak Park and River Forest. But as viewers of America to Me soon find, the school is dealing with some serious clumps in its fondue.

Through interviews with students, parents, administrators and coaches, James slowly unpeels the ramifications of a colorblind approach to education in which almost no one talks about race. In her book, Tatum explained how race becomes more of a factor for children of color, especially black children, as they get older. They lose the assumption of innocence that might have shielded them from race-based slights when they were younger.

By following the lives of real high school students, James shows how easy it is to disturb illusions of an idealized setting. This is a school that has segregated itself internally. Most of the teaching staff is white, while the security guards are predominantly black. The cheer squad is nearly all black; the drill team is nearly all white. There’s a long-standing achievement gap between white students and black ones that the school has failed to narrow, let alone close.

If ever there was a high school that should double as a melting pot, it’s Oak Park and River Forest. But it’s dealing with some serious clumps in its fondue.

“Oak Park, this school is crazy,” Charles Donalson, one of the series’ most magnetic student characters, tells the camera. “You talk to who you don’t have to try with.”

Donalson has lost patience with trying to talk to his white counterparts about race, so much so that he walks the halls between classes with his headphones over his ears and his music turned up loud. Instead, he expresses himself through poetry in the school’s spoken word club.

When the series begins, school administrators are wrestling with the issue of a Black Lives Matter assembly that was closed to white students so that students of color could speak openly and without fear. The decision drew complaints of reverse racism.

America to Me holds up a particularly compelling mirror to American race relations by examining multiple generations. James provides an answer to the cafeteria question by showing how kids learn attitudes about race from their parents. The security guards reveal that white students will occasionally tell them that they work for them, an assertion one guard says she constantly hears from white parents.

In one heartbreaking scene, American literature teacher Jessica Stovall, who is biracial, reveals that a white student called her the Nword when she directed him to stop referring to another student with an epithet for homosexual. When she brought the student to school administrators, he received a slap on the wrist. Administrators contended that they couldn’t prove the student knew Stovall’s race because she was out of his line of vision when she yelled at him. Stovall has few allies on the issue of race amongst her fellow teachers, and finds that it’s her black students who actually share her anger and horror.

Chala Holland, the school vice principal, is black. She tells James that Oak Park and River Forest has “levels of diversity,” but “in terms of being progressive? Not so much.” She ends up taking a job at another school, in part, she says, “because this school is wedded to white cultural norms.”

Stovall tries to change the culture of Oak Park and River Forest. She even goes on a sabbatical to New Zealand to learn how schools there bridged a similar achievement gap between white and indigenous students. But when she returns, she finds little support from administrators for implementing what she’s learned.

Stovall persists, though, incorporating discussions of race and police violence into her curriculum. She uses a mock emergency room setting to illustrate the difference between equality and equity. In Stovall’s demonstration, equality is treating a person with a broken limb the same as a person with a headache, by giving them both ibuprofen. Equity, says Stovall, is treating both patients to ensure they have similar health outcomes.

When it comes to biracial students, James shows how parents’ silence on racism can be especially harmful. In one episode Stovall returns home to Wisconsin to visit her parents. Her mother is white and her father is black. Stovall’s mother prefers not to discuss racism and wishes everyone would simply see each other “as people.” Stovall can’t really discuss the racism she faced growing up in Wisconsin because it’s too painful — for her mother.

For all the seriousness of its subject matter, America to Me is an immense pleasure to watch as students make their way through the hallmarks of high school like homecoming. The students are impressively astute when it comes to articulating how the adults are failing them. One can only hope the adults are listening.

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the culture critic for The Undefeated. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts, and literature. She's based in Brooklyn.