The Reality of Systemic Racism

Working together as a community, Middlesex students and faculty observed the official Martin Luther King, Jr. Day on January 20 by focusing on a problem of social justice that Dr. King spent his life combating: systemic racism. Guest speaker André Robert Lee joined the School for the day’s program, helping to clarify and answer questions about systemic racism – its continuing prevalence and influence in America today.

A documentary filmmaker and teacher of filmmaking at Germantown Friends School, Mr. Lee is also an adjunct professor of writing at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton Business School. He wrote, directed, and produced the autobiographical documentary, The Prep School Negro, which was screened at Middlesex in 2011. During this second visit to campus, Mr. Lee shared a more recent and similarly powerful documentary – I’m Not Racist…Am I? – on which he served as a producer. Exploring how the next American generation might confront racism, the film follows 12 New York City teens who volunteered to spend one year talking about racism and privilege during workshops and through conversations with family and friends. Their candor, struggle, and growth are both moving and inspirational, highlighting the need for people to talk about and try to disrupt structural racism.

Speaking to the School before showing the documentary, Mr. Lee shared his hope that viewers would “think about how we can move past representation and think about some actionable things we can do” to nullify systemic racism and make opportunities for success equitable – not just available to the privileged few. In projecting several pictures – of young Emmett Till and a bullet-riddled historic marker about his murder, as well as Confederate flags placed on graves only after a black mayor was elected in Selma, Alabama, – Mr. Lee rightly asked, “How far have we come?”

As difficult as discussions of racism may be, Mr. Lee encouraged everyone to “stay with it – intellectually, emotionally, and physically” throughout the day’s activities, which also included having students play the American Dream board game with their classmates. Best described as a combination of The Game of Life® and Chutes and Ladders®, the game assigned students to specific characters of different races, genders, and socioeconomic classes to help them “spend some time in someone else’s shoes” as they explored how bias, stereotypes, discrimination, and systemic inequity can stymie a person’s pursuit of the “American Dream.”

After the watching documentary and playing the game – and during small-group meetings with their faculty advisors – students had time to share impressions and ask plenty of questions that reflected their engagement with and concern about a challenging, deeply engrained issue. For some, the day’s program was an eye-opening revelation, while others found it a validation of their own experiences.

“It’s better than it used to be,” Mr. Lee said of equality in America, “and it has a long way to go. Spending time with you all today makes me more hopeful.” Remembering Dr. King’s moral imperative to act with love in the fight for social justice, Mr. Lee concluded, “Accepting Dr. King’s message means I really do think we’re going to get there.”