American Promise: The Colors of Education

Image courtesy of 2012

Image courtesy of 2012

Being a student is a hard enough task on its own. Put aside the toil of maintaining good grades, and you are left with the inevitable adolescent social obstacles of peer pressure, fitting in and trying to be cool. But what happens when juggling classes and extracurricular activities becomes the least of your worries and, instead, you find yourself confronting issues of race and discrimination in the classroom?

American Promise is a captivating documentary, 13 years in the making, that tackles these issues. It follows the schooling of two middle class African American boys, Idris and Seun, and aims to understand the root causes of the Black male achievement gap. The filmmakers (parents of Idris) create an exigency for action by emphasizing how “only one of out every four African American boys will graduate from high school.” The students, teachers and administration are familiar with the facts and figures; however, there are misunderstandings about why, exactly, this is happening or where the disconnect between African American boys and achievement occurs.

The film challenges the notion that the gap is merely about opportunity or resources. As we see in the film, both boys routinely struggle to perform on the same level as their White peers, despite relative economic stability. Idris and Seun have access to a prestigious private school education that many African American young males do not, yet they still face many academic and personal challenges in their years at The Dalton School. Race looms as a part of interconnected struggles in the boys’ lives. Young Idris appears to fight an ongoing battle with his Black identity. When his father asks if race is an issue, Idris shakes his head and replies, “No, it’s never an issue.” However, in another scene he asks, “Isn’t it better if I were white?”

The film highlights a complex contradiction: While access to a prestigious education may promote heightened academic achievement, the cultural dissociation caused by isolation may also cause ruptures within a community. The boys often experience conflicting pressures, such as when parents and teachers praise them for their excellent grasp of English grammar, while friends and teammates from their Brooklyn neighborhood ostracize them for their perceived difference. These contradictory opinions create even more individual confusion.

American Promise is slated for release this month in New York, and New Yorkers, especially, can take a lot from this documentary. It is not solely about opening doors; it is about hard work, persistence and drive. We must demand better, more equitable schools and mobilize all actors–students, parents, educators, community leaders–to become proactive in narrowing the achievement gap. I propose we start now.

by Qi Xu


Leave a comment


  1. Soo N.

     /  November 1, 2013

    After seeing American Promise, the question of ‘how do we measure success?’ got stuck in my head. The filmmakers, who are the parents of Idris, portray an aspect of this success coming from receiving the best education that is available for their son. I wonder though, is receiving prestigious education ‘the’ solution to living a successful life? There is one scene in the film where Idris’ parents are disappointed at the college acceptance results. I felt as though all the efforts and hard work that Idris has put in his whole journey at Dalton – overcoming implicit discrimination and working hard everyday to do well in class – just became a disappointment in his parents’ eyes. I wonder if Idris thinks of his experience at Dalton as a stepping stone to become a successful person or as a memory of failures that hinders him from succeeding. We need to rethink the idea of success in our society: a shift from constructing flashy resumes to building self-esteem and confidence can be a start.


  2. Matthew Duprey

     /  November 7, 2013

    I appreciate this article. While watching the film I felt like the film was hinting at a point the entire time but was unable to pinpoint exactly what it was. You do a good job of explaining what is presumably the primary point that this achievement gap is complicated and not explained away simply by resources and opportunity. The one out of four graduating high school statistic is astonishing I didn’t know that was the extent of the situation. That alone should be enough of a call to action. There aren’t many good jobs left that don’t require a college education let alone a high school education. I think we should seriously consider substantial public funding for higher education through the tax code because it has become as essential as a high school degree, but that is an argument for another time and place.

    I think the guidance counselor at the Banniker school made a really good point in questioning this need for African-American students to experience “diversity” by going to “white” schools. As he said, it’s not like white parents are taking their kids out of local schools so they can experience “diversity.” Rather than increase access to schools like Dalton, we should try to improve the reputation and quality of schools like Banniker. The quality of a child’s school shouldn’t be based on their birth location, I feel like this argument isn’t articulated enough. Why must we accept this premise? What about alternatives such as funding schools based on an equal tax such as the statewide or citywide sales tax rather than on the unequal property tax? Or having an education tax that is the same for every citizen with the citizens unable to pay covered by a nonprofit? (more experimental I know)

    Discussions of school reform that focus on charter schools or school vouchers are cop outs, that shift the focus away from an increase in resources needed in our public schools. We need more school reform like Vermont ( has instituted; which has all education funds go to the state to be distributed. I suspect school funding inequality is part of the causes of the achievement gap.



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