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Let’s Watch: American Promise

We are going to try something new here at SociologyInFocus. Instead of reading about a social issue we are going to learn about the issues of social location and life chances by watching the documentary American Promise. This documentary follows two African American boys from kindergarten through high school and over the 13 years we watch them grow and see the challenges they face.

What would happen if you placed a 5 year old child into one of the most prestigious private schools in the country? How would his or her life change? Would they be fast tracked to a life of professional success and material wealth? What if that child was an African American male? Would that change their outcomes?

In the recent documentary American Promise we get to answer these questions by watching two little 5 year old African American boys, Idris and Seun, enroll at The Dalton School in New York City. We follow them and their families as they go through all 13 years of K–12 education. We get to see their first hand experiences of opportunity, discrimination, and struggle.

If you live in the United States you can watch this film for free online until March 6th through your local PBS broadcaster (click here to watch the film before 3/6/14). As you watch the film be thinking about the following questions:

  • How are the boys treated differently than their female and non-black classmates?
  • What are the issues that parents of color must worry about when they send their children to school that white parents may not have to think about?
  • How do the boys struggle personally with being one of the few students of color at a predominately white school?
  • How are the boys treated by their teachers and the school administrators? Be sure to discuss the suspensions and other discipline the boys received.

Dig Deeper:

  1. If you are a student of color, are the experiences of Idris and Seun similar to your K–12 experience or different? If you are a white student, after seeing the documentary do you feel your K–12 experience would have been different if you were a person of color? If you’re a multiracial student, answer how you see fit.
  2. Imagine that you are the parents of a child of color with the opportunity to enroll them in a prestigious private school that is predominately white. What concerns would you have and would you take the opportunity and enroll you child?
  3. At multiple times in the documentary, Idris and Seun get into trouble or get downgraded by their teachers because they are unable to “stay organized” and do things like have the right assignment/book out at the right time. For instance, when Seun fails out of Dalton, it’s not because he doesn’t understand the material, it’s because he struggles to anticipate what materials he should have on hand during class time. What do you make of this fact? If the students are learning the material, why does it matter so much that they need to be reminded to pull out the right book? What does this tell us about what the school values?
  4. What was the most interesting aspect of the film for you? What did you find most challenging and/or upsetting?