Op-Ed: Combating Racism in SF’s Public Schools

By Jeff Adachi

Special to the SF Examiner

Peer into a San Francisco classroom and you’ll find racial and ethnic diversity that rivals the United Nations. Students speak 44 documented languages. Approximately 87 percent are people of color.

But recent headlines demonstrate that not even multicultural San Francisco is immune to racial tensions in its schools.

At Lowell High School last month, a Black History Month flyer depicting President Barack Obama and other prominent African Americans was marred with the caption “#gang.” More than a dozen St. Ignatius High School students were suspended for taking part in a “wigga” party, where white students dressed to fit stereotypes of blacks. These local incidents joined a string of national scandals, including Arizona teens who posed in T-shirts spelling out the N-word and Chicago students who reenacted a modern slave auction.

Each blunder was quickly followed by administrator apologies and student suspensions. But does that really do much when it comes to addressing the root of the problem? By punishing the actor, do we eliminate the ideas that gave rise to the act? And why do we still see this type of divisive and prejudiced behavior in the post-Obama era? Wasn’t the election of a black president supposed to take our nation beyond its racist roots?

I wanted to find out, so I embarked on a mission to help students learn the history of racism by making a film. The result is an eight-minute movie, “America Needs a Racial Facial.” Due to the limitations of classroom times and the need to accompany the showing of the film with a healthy discussion, I decided to keep the film short. With the help of two young filmmakers from the social justice agency Silicon Valley De-Bug and a soundtrack by DJ Smash, we packed more than 400 photos and videos into a film designed to spark dialogue.

“Racial Facial” covers slavery and the resistance to it, the annihilation of Native Americans, the exclusion of Chinese laborers and the internment of Japanese Americans. It takes on modern day discrimination, leading the viewer through a virtual time tunnel of Jim Crow laws, the Bracero program and organization of Latino farm workers, the Civil Rights movement and today’s Black Lives Matter protests. The film also shows how minorities and whites have worked together to fight against social injustice, such as when white and black soldiers fought together in the Union Army during the Civil War.

I offered the film to both San Francisco schools marred by recent racial incidents. An administrator from Lowell High School agreed to show the film to two classes, totaling 80 students.

After the screening, each student was asked to state his or her reaction to the images they had seen. As the discussion flowed from student to student, a remarkable thing happened: Students began sharing their experiences with racism.

Students of color discussed feeling marginalized at times, and how their sense of social activism came from being treated differently. White students talked about negotiating bigotry in their own homes when their parents used racially charged language. One white student talked about supporting Black Lives Matter, while her mother felt very strongly that the movement was wrong.

We also provided each student with a study guide to further explore the subjects and leaders covered in the film and introduced them to exercises meant to uncover one’s own implicit bias and how to combat it.

Today, we know more about racism than ever before. Over the past 20 years, neuroscientists have been able to demonstrate that our attitudes on race come from unconscious or implicit biases, programmed into our brains at an early age to help us determine who we favor and who we do not.

These stereotypes are tied directly to the part of our brains devoted to making judgments and ultimately drive our actions. Interestingly, research has shown that babies do not distinguish between babies of other races until they are about 9 months old, around the time many begin interacting with other children in group care. Only then do the preferences that give rise to implicit bias begin to form.

If racism is learned, then part of the solution is to unlearn racism. Most students are not taught about the historical roots of racism unless they take an ethnic studies course in college. Their thoughts and ideals then come from the process of deciding who they choose to associate with and who they do not, as well as their social-class strata and the example set by their parents. It is also based on their knowledge of the history of racism as a social justice issue.

Only in this way, I believe, will we succeed in unlearning the implicit and explicit biases that have enslaved and divided us as Americans.

Jeff Adachi is a filmmaker and also serves as San Francisco’s Public Defender. Adachi’s film, “America Needs a Racial Facial,” premieres as part of the CAAM Film Festival on March 12 at 2:40 p.m. at the Roxie Theater. For more information about the film, visit www.racialfacial.org.