Why 'American Son' Is So Poignant and Personal (Guest Column)

Peter Cunningham; Opportunity Agenda
From left: Kerry Washington, Steven Pasquale and Jeremy Jordan in 'American Son' (Inset: Alan Jenkins)

The Opportunity Agenda president Alan Jenkins writes about the urgent social relevance of the new Broadway play starring Kerry Washington, which examines race-related police profiling issues.

When I heard about American Son, actress and activist Kerry Washington’s new Broadway play, my enthusiasm was not only professional, but personal.

As president of The Opportunity Agenda — and an African-American growing up in a predominantly white community — I was always struck by how different my experience and family narrative about police officers was from my white classmates and neighbors. They viewed police as a source of comfort and potential rescue if they got in a jam. A traffic stop for them might result in a warning or, at worst, a ticket. Some of my classmates were marijuana smokers, and the worst outcome they feared while smoking weed was being brought home to their parents for discipline.

Washington's play touches on all these experiences, and more. Opening Sunday at the Booth Theatre, the four-character drama, written by Christopher Demos-Brown, concerns a mixed-race couple desperate for answers in the disappearance of their son Jamal, after a late-night traffic stop in Florida. The issues of public safety, policing and equal justice are all issues we work on in-depth at my organization, and when Christy Haubegger at CAA and friends at the Ford Foundation approached us to lend our expertise, we jumped at the chance.

Because for me, interaction with the police was always tinged with fear. Fear that implicit stereotypes or conscious bigotry would trump evidence and professionalism. Fear that an officer's resentment would leave me humiliated, mistreated, injured or dead. Fortunately, I experienced only the first two as a teenager. And, importantly, those experiences co-existed with occasional positive interaction with police, such as the caring officer assigned as a crossing guard at our elementary school.

But like many people of color, I also experienced racially parallel perceptions in school, where I began to see their harmful implications. My white law schoolmates — who included now-Justice Neil Gorsuch — tended to incorporate their experience into their reading of law, policy and our Constitution, while African-American students — including former President Barack Obama — were more likely to recognize the excesses and abuses of law enforcement, as well as its benefits and the very real risks that many officers face.

These contrasting narratives (and their exceptions) were particularly evident when local police refused to believe that two black law students were, in fact, students — a phenomenon that we continue to see in politics and entertainment.

Indeed, research by The Opportunity Agenda has repeatedly found that entertainment media representations of black men and boys are distorted, disproportionately depicting us as associated with crime and violence and underrepresenting our real-life roles as parents, entrepreneurs, problem solvers and everyday participants in America's social fabric. We've found trends in popular media regarding similar depictions of Latinx immigrants. They also include few depictions of the obstacles to equal opportunity and equal justice that people of color disproportionately face.

These pop culture trends have their own harmful consequences. In our polarized and often separate society, media stereotypes drive perceptions of reality — influencing who calls the police on whom, who police officers treat as "suspicious" or a threat, and the extent to which claims of biased policing are believed or disregarded.

But there are solutions. They include taking a close, careful look at the factors that cause communities to feel unsafe. They include examining the role of police and discussing what needs to change so that we can get closer to the goal of safety and security for everyone.

In addition, we need to recognize that the goal of policing should be public safety, not harassment and intimidation. Pointing out the special challenges that marginalized groups face when interacting with police can help audiences who are new to the issue understand how to improve policing so that equal treatment, respect and rights are central to all police‚Äźcommunity interactions.

And creative efforts to tell more nuanced and varied stories about police-community relationships are especially vital. That's why we decided to partner with Washington and American Son.

Rather than reducing complex people and issues to caricatures, as so many depictions do, the play uplifts the very different experiences that people of different races have with police, and how their different perceptions can exacerbate misunderstanding, conflict and harm. It also poignantly acknowledges the reality that African-American police officers are not immune to the stereotypes about young men of color that so many Americans of all races carry around in their heads.

Our involvement with American Son will include post-performance talkbacks with the cast and social justice leaders on Nov. 27 and Jan. 10, as well as "Raising American Son: A Discussion Guide," which will be available at the venue and online for all audiences.

Along with recent works like The Hate U Give, American Son adds to a growing number of important cultural works that tell a new and more nuanced story about what safety and justice do and could look like in America. We're pleased to be part of what we hope will be a lasting shift in our national narrative.

Alan Jenkins is the president of The Opportunity Agenda, a communications, research and policy organization dedicated to building the national will to expand opportunity in America. He is one of the country's leading thinkers on the relationship between media, public opinion, law, policy and ensuring opportunity for all Americans.