Trump’s Education Plan Is a Recipe for School Segregation

In September, Donald Trump stood in front of a Cleveland, Ohio charter school and spoke about the troubled schools in the American “inner city”—a term the president-elect famously uses as a catch-all for poor and/or black neighborhoods. The promise Trump made then—which he’s reiterated in his plan for his first 100 days as president, and reinforced with his pick for education secretary—is to greatly expand school choice. The idea is that if a neighborhood school is failing, poor kids should be able to use federal and state funds to attend whichever school they want.

But evidence of the flaw in Trump’s plan was right in front of him. The charter school he was speaking at—the Cleveland Arts and Social Sciences Academy—is not doing well. The state of Ohio gives the school a grade of D for its students’ test performance.

School choice is not a new concept. For decades, states have been trying to encourage competition among different school models. That has led to an explosion in the number of charter schools, which are publicly funded but operate outside of the control of local school districts. The trouble is, researchers have found that these schools have mixed effects. In some cases charters improve test scores, while in others students do significantly worse than they would in neighborhood schools. Some districts have also tried giving students vouchers to go to private schools—which Trump has also called for—and have had similarly mixed results.

Many public school advocates argue that even the best charter schools can cause problems, because they drain money from other schools. That raises a big question about Trump’s plan, which would redirect $20 billion in federal funds to let students choose different schools. If that comes from the Department of Education budget, as some analysts expect, it would likely come from the two big buckets of federal money that go to K-12 schools now: $15.5 billion in Title 1 funds for schools with low-income populations and $12 billion for special education. Using that money for vouchers could mean decimating before- and after-school programs, tutoring in reading and math, and other supports for students facing the most serious academic challenges. The plan would also encourage states to dig money out of their own education spending for school choice.

There’s a huge and growing gap between rich and poor kids.

Though his plan is misguided, the education crisis Trump points to is real—and really serious. There’s a huge and growing gap between the academic achievement levels of rich and poor kids. Today, students from wealthy families outscore their low-income counterparts by nearly 400 points on the SATs and are far more likely to graduate from high school.

One of the most successful ways to help low-income kids do better is to reduce income segregation, which has grown by 40% since 1990. That has a serious impact: One eye-popping study found that students from lower-income, less-educated families who attend school with wealthier peers are 68% more likely to attend a four-year college than those who go to an income-segregated school with peers from similar backgrounds.

The study’s author, Gregory Palardy of the University of California at Riverside, said segregation is the single biggest way that U.S. schools shortchange low-income students. Schools serving poor children tend to get less funding, hire less-skilled teachers, and offer fewer advanced courses than their counterparts in wealthier areas. And, Palardy said, poor kids simply have a harder time succeeding when their peers are all facing similar disadvantages. He said lower-income kids are far more likely to succeed if they go to school with more affluent peers who know a lot about college and expect, as a matter of course, that they’ll continue their education beyond high school.

“They rub off on you and your view of the world,” he said.

One of the arguments behind school choice is that it would reduce segregation by letting parents send their kids to schools that are more diverse than their neighborhoods. But studies have found that the proliferation of charter schools has led to greater economic—as well as racial—segregation. There are essentially two sets of charter schools. One enrolls predominantly privileged white students—often pulling them from more diverse neighborhood schools—while another serves mainly poor black and Latino communities.

The importance of integration hasn’t gone unnoticed in education policy circles. Across the country, some school districts are working to reduce economic segregation, and earlier this year President Obama proposed a $120 million grant program to support these efforts. But all these plans depend on higher-income parents’ voluntarily participation, which isn’t always easy to achieve.

Dr. Catherine Cushinberry, executive director of the national organization Parents for Public Schools (PPS), said that richer, white parents may want to keep their children out of poorer, more heavily minority schools because they mistakenly worry that these schools won’t be good for their kids. But, she said, it’s often possible to convince them that a more diverse school has advantages. That’s part of PPS’s mission.

“The source of our beginning, really, is in Jackson, Mississippi in the early ’90s,” Cushinberry said. “It was around this notion of white flight. We’re still dealing with similar issues as we did in 1991.”

One way to unify communities is around bringing together strong, quality schools.

Today, PPS supports parent activists in school systems from the Deep South to San Francisco, where rapid gentrification is raising new questions about school segregation. In addition to encouraging school integration, the organization works to get parents involved in improving the schools.

One recent, hopeful story comes from Oktibbeha County, Mississippi. Two low-income, mostly African-American high schools were closed, and the students moved to the more affluent Starkville High. Fearing that wealthier white families would pull their kids from the school, members of PPS Starkville worked with the state legislature, Mississippi State University, and other local groups to help smooth the transition. They found ways to get new funding for computers, books, buses and equipment, and to open new programs—including a pre-K. In the end there was no white flight. A number of white students actually left private schools for the new, more integrated district.

As far as Trump’s plan to increase school choice goes, Cushinberry said there just aren’t enough details available yet for her to comment. But, she said, in the wake of the election, she’s been thinking about how Americans can work together across social divisions.

“Certainly one way to unify communities is around bringing together strong, quality schools,” she said.



How to Survive an Anti-Feminist Backlash

The course of feminist progress never did run smooth. That may not be a comforting thing to acknowledge, in November of 2016 — now that we’ve elected a white supremacist beauty-pageant mogul with over a dozen outstanding sexual assault allegations, and potentially handed the Supreme Court over to a conservative supermajority that could effectively erase most of the second wave’s gains — but it’s true. Every feminist stride forward has been accompanied by backlash; the forthcoming Trump administration is just one more dark period in a history where bursts of light have always been the exception. The question is how to keep the movement alive, or at least on life support, until real progress is possible again.

The pattern laid down by history is clear. The first major book of feminist theory in the West, Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, was shockingly popular when it was published in 1792. Key figures in American politics — John and Abigail Adams, Aaron Burr — studied it with care and reverence. If things had gone only a little differently, the United States might have been founded as an explicitly feminist nation. But Wollstonecraft died, and the posthumously revealed details of her sexual life and mental illness were used to conduct a campaign of character assassination until feminism itself became tainted by association. That led to the 19th century and the Victorian era, whose institutionalized misogyny and sexual conservatism still comprise the backbone of most anti-feminist thinking today.

Every feminist stride forward has been accompanied by backlash.

The cycle repeats. The 19th century did, eventually, give us the suffrage movement — but white women gaining the vote did not prevent the harshly enforced racist patriarchy of the early 20th century. By the 1960s, the Father Knows Best era had gotten unbearable enough to give us the second wave — which, after making rapid cultural and legislative progress throughout the ‘70s, met the freeze-out of the 1980s through the 2000s. Throughout the 2000s, an independent women’s media movement, facilitated by the rise of blogging, broke the taboo on talking about gender politics. It so effectively mainstreamed the feminist movement that, by the early 2010s, mainstream journalism and pop culture alike rode its coattails. Now, right on schedule, we have New York Times op-eds on why liberals should stop talking about “identity politics.”

Oh yeah, and Trump.

Granted, Trump’s more-than-flirtation with fascism will make this particular cycle worse. Some, like journalist and scholar of authoritarian regimes Sarah Kendzior, see no hope at all for feminist progress: “We need to prevent the Trump regime. There will be no organizing under it,” Kendzior told me. “If we go forward under his regime, it will be authoritarianism and there is a decent chance we will be jailed or killed.”

Yet “preventing” the Trump administration is likely impossible: There is no evidence that the electoral college will swing to Clinton, or that evidence of Russian influence on the election will be investigated deeply enough or quickly enough to call his victory into question. If we believe that Trump will happen, the question then becomes how to slow him down, and how to keep organized and committed to that task.

I asked Andi Zeisler, co-founder of Bitch Magazine — which arguably laid the groundwork for much of the 2000s women’s-media renaissance — how her readers’ needs had shifted in times of more intense backlash, like the Bush administration.

“For every reader who had lived through the supposedly post-feminist ’80s and the feminist ’90s, there were more who were just coming of age and coming to feminism in this conservative time and realizing that they needed feminism much more than they had expected to,” Zeisler says. “So to me it felt less like a shift than a continuum. The one thing we did experience was that people were not coming to us just for pop-culture and media analysis. They wanted concrete, actionable information: Who to write to, where to protest, etc. And they wanted to hear more directly from activists.”

Of course, there’s the issue of what that activism will look like and what our goals can reasonably be. In recent years, feminists have had the luxury of playing offense. We could afford the time bitching about millennials’ “entitlement” and focus on micro-aggressions. Now, the issue is not just abortion stigma, but whether we will retain the right to abortion; not only how the media represents or employs marginalized people, but whether the media itself will be free to produce anything but Trump propaganda.

This is painful, not just because of the losses themselves, but because we seemed to be so close to making tangible gains. Policies for paid family leave, more affordable college, and a strikingly ambitious plan to cap child care cost at 10% of a family’s income were all on the table in Hillary Clinton’s administration. She had also vowed to fight restrictions on abortion, defended late-term abortion, and had committed to overturning the Hyde Amendment, which prevents poor women from accessing federal funds for abortion and thus puts it out of reach for many poor women.

Trump’s gender policy is still taking shape, but the early signs — he’s affirmed a commitment to overturning Roe v. Wade, and made moves to forbid single parents from filing as “head of household” — are that we will not just stall out on advancing these agendas, but rapidly move backward. That means that defensive activism is the only activism left.

Most feminist activism has taken place not in the bright sunlight, but in the shadow of overwhelming and oppressive conditions. Cindy Cooper, of the reproductive justice organization Words of Choice, points me to the way much pro-choice activism arose specifically in response to the backlash of the Reagan ‘80s. She cites an essay by longtime activist Barbara Santee: “Young people must prepare themselves for a lifelong engagement in this crucial war to protect women’s reproductive autonomy,” Santee wrote. “If side A is prepared at any cost to take away side B’s freedom, and side B is saying, ‘It can never happen,’ it will happen.”

We can’t relax, and we can’t assume that everything (or anything) will work out.

In other words: By underestimating the damage that Trump’s extremist right-wing movement is prepared to do to women’s rights, we all but ensure that damage will occur. We can’t relax, and we can’t assume that everything (or anything) will work out.

“I don’t think any backlash ever ended,” Cooper added. “A lot of horrible things have happened in the Obama years, from murders at Planned Parenthood to the vast expansion of state anti-abortion regulations. In fact, historically, it’s been true, I believe, that more bad things happen in the abortion area when there are pro-choice people in office because the antis go wild. Of course, now we may be facing the worst of the worst… reproductive rights is an ongoing lifelong battle, and so are all of the fights for civil rights, freedom and human rights.”

If the Trump administration does nothing else for feminism — and, trust me, a Trump administration will do absolutely nothing else for feminism — it can, at the least, galvanize us into an awareness of how fragile our progress always has been, and remind us to keep committed to that lifelong, never-ending march.



Norman Lear on What Progressives Have to Learn

I sat down with Norman Lear, the celebrated television writer and producer, in the wake of the 2016 election. We talked about the different turns his career has taken—from his time writing for classic sitcoms, to his founding role at People for the American Way, to his work on America Divided, the new documentary series on inequality in America—and about where we go from here, in Trump’s America.

Rebecca Vallas: You’re probably best known for your career as a TV writer and producer from popular shows like All in the Family and The Jeffersons to Sanford and Sons. But you later branched out to advocacy work, founding People for the American Way in 1981. What drove you to enter the advocacy world in that kind of a formal way?

Norman Lear: Well in 1980, there was a proliferation of TV evangelicals, the Jerry Falwells and Pat Robertsons and Jimmy Swaggarts and so forth. They were mixing politics and religion, and I’ve been scared of the mix of politics and religion since I was nine years old. That’s when I took civics in school, and I was so in love with the founding fathers. I loved those guarantees of freedom and equal justice. I loved what we read about who we were and the promises we made.

RV: I’m struck by the People for the American Way’s organizational founding mission statement. You describe the organization’s goal as in part, “to promote a sense of community and tolerance and compassion for others.” What lessons might we draw from that, as we look back on one of the ugliest and most polarizing campaigns in recent memory?

NL: Well, in a sense, isn’t that mission statement representing organizations—left and right, as a matter of fact—that all cling to the wish of equality for all? As a matter of fact, I often think the right has taken those ideas and those words. If one asked oneself “who does the flag belong to, left or right,” I think the answer would have to be right. Who does God belong to? Right, if you had to make a choice.

I don’t believe that the right has been behaving in an American fashion or a Godly fashion, certainly not any more than the left. But I fault us on the left, for letting God go, for letting the flag go, for letting patriotism go. We’re not as at good at bumper sticker stuff as the right is. Our hearts and souls are there, but I wish our asses were too.

RV: During this election cycle I think many have actually pointed to Archie Bunker, the character that you wrote for All in the Family. He was a staunch conservative, a blue-collar worker, who wasn’t exactly shy about his views when it came to minorities and women and LGBT individuals and on and on. The show was set some 40 years ago, but people have been seeing Archie Bunker all over the 2016 presidential election.

NL: The Archie Bunker you just described, he didn’t know what the hell he was talking about. He just came out of fear. A fear of progress, a fear of forward movement—the idea of a black family moving in next door scared the hell out of him. That’s not what’s happening right now. We don’t have an Archie Bunker, ‘cause that would suggest heart and soul.

I don’t think the country knows Donald Trump really well yet, despite the celebrity. Or maybe better said, we know him the way we know all our celebrities, which is to say we know about them from the tube, from lights, from the glare, from the glisten. But do we really know them? Not the way the media plays it.

RV: Well even if it isn’t fair to make a comparison between Donald Trump, our next president, and Archie Bunker, do you see glimmers among his supporters, or some of them at least?

We haven’t had an honest discussion of what’s at stake.

NL: Well, yes, I think there’s a lot of the kind of sounds Archie Bunker made coming from the supporters. They don’t know the issues and they have reason to be afraid. This is where I thought of Archie, and of Donald Trump from the very beginning, as the middle finger of the American right hand. They were feeling desperate for leadership.

You know, this is a republic that depends on an informed citizenry. And we don’t have national conversations that really inform people. We’ve got media, and in the case of 17 people running for the Republican candidacy, just people bumper stickering each other. By “bumper stickering” I mean using these short phrases that wrap the other guy. We haven’t had an honest discussion of what’s at stake here.

RV: For people who do want to have that honest discussion of what’s at stake, and for people who care about addressing poverty and tackling inequality, there are a whole range of related issues that you explore in the America Divided series. Where do we go from here and what can we take away from this election?

NL: More of America Divided, more of what you’re doing exactly at this moment, more conversation, and more honesty.

You’re talking to a man who is well known for his views and everything else, but I was thinking, when I was with Dolores Huerta, who comes out of the farm worker’s movement, very close to Chavez, and she’s been active, gloriously active to this moment. And she’s been arrested like twenty times, for people’s protest.

So you’re talking to a man now, and this man is listening to himself, who’s never been arrested. So I want to dust myself off. For all my spouting, for everything I’ve done, why have I never been arrested? I’ve cared enough, I’ve wished to protest enough, so maybe in my 94th year I’ll get to do that too.

RV: Well, I’d be happy to join you if you let me know where to go and when.

A lot of people have been describing this particular election and the election result as really categorically different from any other presidential election we’ve had. You’ve seen a lot of elections in your lifetime. Is it fair to categorize this election, and the outcome and the next president, as truly unique?

NL: Well it is truly unique, but it isn’t alone. When Al Gore lost, it was the Supreme Court who decided that he would not be the next president. That was truly unique. When Nixon came into the presidency and when he left the presidency, my God wasn’t that truly unique! So we’ve been here before. And we’ll get through it, we’ll get past unique.

RV: A lot of the discussion throughout the entire election season and also going back into the primary, has been about deep economic anger. Anger about inequality, anger about kitchen table issues, not being able to make ends meet, and the rising income instability across this country. What is your read about what progressives should take away from the final outcome here?

NL: Progressives should take away that we have been an utter failure. And that we talk our game, but we’re not sufficiently active or dynamic or truly honest. We have a lot to learn.

We have a lot to learn.

If we see Trump making mistakes like who he might appoint to the Supreme Court, we can stand up as one. I’ll get arrested protesting someplace. And everybody does his or her part in the same fashion. We’ve got to be heard from. We’ve got to remember eternal vigilance, eternal and daily vigilance. This is the price of liberty.

RV: You purchased, some number of years ago, one of the first published copies of the Declaration of Independence, for many millions of dollars. And you did that because you said that you “wanted to help re-acquaint America with its birth certificate.” Why did you do that, and do you think there is anything to take away from that at this particular moment in our nation’s history?

NL: Because it was like a moving civics class. I’d like to join a fight, if there is anyone listening to me, to get the civics back in the classroom. To teach American kids what America is all about. Who we are as Americans. Because we lost all that.

We were in love with our country when we understood what it was to be all about. What its founders declared it wished it be. We’re not taught that in school anymore. I wish to God we could get a movement that gets civics back in the classroom, so we learn who we’re supposed to be and we start taking care of ourselves and each other that way.

This interview was edited for length and clarity. Listen to the most recent episode of TalkPoverty Radio for the full interview.



The War on the Poor Is Already Underway

It was just a little over two months ago that the Census Bureau reported the very good news that real median household incomes had increased by 5.2% from 2014 to 2015, and that the poverty rate had fallen by 1.3 percentage points. The bureau also told us that the percentage of people without health insurance coverage had continued to decline substantially.

That upbeat report is likely to be the last burst of good news that the poor will see for quite some time. Donald Trump, Paul Ryan, and the bellicose tribunes of the hard right are in complete charge of the federal government. Their hostility to such crucial anti-poverty efforts as the Affordable Care Act, Medicaid, food stamps, and substantial increases in the minimum wage is hardly a secret.

With both houses of Congress under Republican control, big tax cuts (heavily weighted toward the richest among us) are a virtual certainty. As a result, trillions of dollars in revenues will likely be lost and Congress will be on the hunt for spending cuts to offset them. Social programs will be among the first items in their sights.

We’ve already seen something of a blueprint for what’s coming: Paul Ryan’s wish list was in his 2015 budget proposal. Nearly 70% of its heart-stopping spending cuts would have come from programs designed to help moderate or low-income people. Last spring Ryan came up with another proposal—this one specifically addressing poverty. He recommended, among other things, cuts to unemployment assistance, a phase-out of the Head Start program, and rollbacks in the federal Pell Grant program, which provides desperately needed assistance to low-income students pursuing higher education.

Ryan’s poverty plans seem peculiarly designed to increase the hardships faced by the poor.

Trump’s approach will likely align with Ryan’s, since his fundamental take on poverty is that people are poor because they are not willing to work. In an interview with Sean Hannity last year, Trump was asked if he would be able to lift America’s 50 million poor people out of poverty.

“I would,” said Trump. “I would create incentives for people to work. People don’t have an incentive. They make more money by sitting there doing nothing than they make if they have a job.”

That, of course, was ominous. The man who is now president-elect did not seem to know that the majority of those who are poor in America are children, people with disabilities, and seniors. Nor did he seem to understand that many adults who are poor actually have jobs and are working every day. There are also millions of people in America who are jobless but frantically seeking work, and millions more who are working part-time but would much rather have full-time employment.

Trump has never given any indication that he knows much or cares much about the poor. Early in his campaign he seemed to be strongly against a higher minimum wage, one of the most important weapons in the anti-poverty arsenal. A year ago, on MSNBC’s Morning Joe program, Trump said, “Our taxes are too high, our wages are too high, everything is too high.” And in one of the GOP primary debates, when asked if he would raise the minimum wage, he replied, “I would not do it.”

Since then, Trump has modified his position somewhat, saying variously that he would look at the possibility of a higher minimum wage, that people need more money, and that states should determine whether minimum wage levels should be raised.

It is, of course, always difficult to glean what Trump’s position is on any given policy. His approaches to policy matters are typically incoherent. But there is nothing that he and the rest of his party have said that would signal anything other than a relentless assault on programs that aid lower-income Americans. Paul Ryan has long been trying to undermine Social Security and Medicare—programs that are cherished by his own Republican constituents. Trump has said that he would protect the benefits of both programs, but who knows what he would do when the tax cuts kick in and deficits start to rise.

For those concerned about the well-being of lower-income individuals and families, it’s dismaying to hear how falsely the right has portrayed the state of the economy during the eight years of Barack Obama’s presidency. Congressional Republicans have shamelessly bad-mouthed the economy at every turn, and their goal was not just to win elections. By trashing all things Obama, they have laid the groundwork for their campaign to undo many of the policies and initiatives that have helped so many Americans, including the poor, since the darkest days of the Great Recession.

This false portrayal of the economy was absorbed by an awful lot of voters. As Derek Thompson wrote in The Atlantic magazine:

“More than half of Republicans think that unemployment has increased under Obama. It has in fact fallen from 10% in 2010 to below 5% today. The labor market is in its longest continuous expansion ever, and the last 12 months have been the best period for wage growth this century.”

Memories are short. When Obama took office, the economy was hemorrhaging 700,000 to 800,000 jobs a month. Since 2010, the economy has grown by nearly 200,000 jobs a month. Twenty million more Americans have health insurance coverage as a result of the Affordable Care Act. Hillary Clinton may have lost Michigan in the presidential election, but if not for Obama and a willing Congress, America would have lost the automobile industry. Try to imagine the impact of that on Michigan and the rest of the country.

Sure, there are plenty of people who are still hurting. But the way to address the concerns of those who are struggling is not to demolish the policies that have already helped millions. We should build upon those policies, improve them, and make every effort to expand the economy and raise the living standards of those who continue to struggle.

What is difficult for so many people of goodwill to comprehend is that improving the lives of poor and low-income Americans is not the objective of conservative politicians. The overriding goals of Donald Trump and his allies in Congress are the same as the goals of the conservative movement throughout the modern era: to expand the wealth, status, and power of the privileged few at the expense of everyone else. That’s why big tax cuts for the rich are the top priority.

All of history tells us that the poor will suffer when Donald Trump comes into office. Just trace how the poor have fared under various administrations from, say, the beginning of the 1930s until now. There’s a reason why George H.W. Bush ridiculed his own party’s trickle-down theories as “voodoo economics.”

In contrast, here is what the policies of the Obama Administration have led to, as recently described by Bob Greenstein, president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities:

“For the first time since 1999, all three key indicators of well-being in the annual Census data moved decisively in the right direction in 2015. The number of uninsured Americans fell by 4 million from 2014 to 2015, on top of a drop of nearly 9 million the year before, with the uninsured rate falling to a historically low 9.1%. The typical household’s income rose by 5.2% or $2,798, after adjusting for inflation, the largest increase on record with data back to 1967. The poverty rate dropped from 14.8% to 13.5%, tying the largest improvement since 1968. Moreover, data to date for 2016 indicate further progress so far this year.”

That was the good news. The bad news is that President-elect Donald Trump and a like-minded Congress are barreling ahead with plans that will undo much, if not most, of that very substantial progress. Unless advocates for the poor in and out of Congress mobilize for a fight like they haven’t seen in decades, an awful lot of poor people will face many long years of extreme—and I do mean extreme—suffering.



The Uncommon Compassion of ‘Moonlight’

Moonlight—Barry Jenkins’s coming-of-age tale about gay black love—is personal.

The film was inspired by In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, a stage piece written—and shelved—a decade ago by playwright and MacArthur “genius” Tarell Alvin McCraney. Moonlight’s storyline divides the life of its main character, Chiron, into three parts: his childhood in the poor Liberty City projects of Miami, Florida; his teenage years balancing his mother’s crack addiction and his peers’ intensifying homophobia; and his early adulthood selling drugs in Atlanta, Georgia.

Audiences can draw a line from McCraney to Chiron in several clear-cut ways: mothers struggling with addiction; dope dealers doubling as father figures; and—given that McCraney, like Chiron, is gay—black queerness. But this narrative also speaks to other gay black men, like me, who can probably see at least a sliver of themselves in Chiron.

In light of the persistent whiteness of major Hollywood films, Moonlight’s incredible blackness and queerness feel almost overwhelmingly refreshing. More often than not, the only options available to black characters involve saving or suffering. Jenkins, however, pulls something about our lives into focus that many audiences don’t really care to understand: the dignity of black bodies, including gay black bodies.

At a time when black lives are silenced more than they’re seen, Chiron’s story carries a potent political urgency. Without moralizing about social misery or giving audiences a reductive takeaway, the film lifts up the fullness of black lives—even if the people living them are poor or dealing drugs or gay.

The film lifts up the fullness of black lives—even if the people living them are poor or dealing drugs or gay.

It is Moonlight’s sensitivity to black life that contributes to its expert handling of pain and healing. Its earliest scenes are set in the 1980s, when the war on drugs was at its most vicious. But the film blasts away myths about poverty, race, sexuality, and how they all intersect. Naomie Harris, for instance, who plays Chiron’s mother Paula, recently told NPR that she was initially skeptical of portraying a crack-addled black woman, due largely to the tropes that beleaguer people of color all too frequently. She found, however, that the movie treats addiction as “a way of coping with pain. We all have pain, but we might be dealing with it in ways that are more socially acceptable.” She continued: “To really play this part, I had to learn to love her and have compassion for her, by really realizing that actually she’s doing the very best that she can with the resources she has at that time.”

One of the film’s many strengths is its nuanced rendering of worlds that Hollywood typically reduces to stereotypes. Take a dinner conversation between a young Chiron, neighborhood drug lord Juan, and Juan’s girlfriend Teresa. After being teased at school, Chiron asks the pair—whom he often runs to in his moments of crisis—a blistering question, delivered simply and sadly: “What’s a faggot?” What unfolds is an ineffably moving meditation on identity. Juan explains that the term, a favorite of Chiron’s tormentors, is used to make gay people feel bad. He also assures the boy that there’s no hurry for him to figure out his feelings; he’ll know when he knows. It’s key that Juan—a drug dealer, a black man, the sort of person films usually flatten onscreen—is the one to nurture this self-knowledge. In marking human potential and staring down homophobia, Juan picks apart expectations of black masculinity.

Jenkins repeatedly loops back to this theme. In the film’s third chapter, we’re introduced to an adult Chiron. Heavily muscled and wearing massive gold fronts, he’s essentially become a cliché of machismo. But it doesn’t last for long, because Kevin—Chiron’s first love and first-love-lost—returns, shaking up pernicious and paper-thin notions of what black sexuality can look like. Or as writer Ta-Nehisi Coates said, the film gives “a softness that black boys are often not given credit for actually possessing.”

It is about empathizing with the concrete stories around us.

Because its characters are whole, complex, and deeply human, there have been delusions that Moonlight is somehow about everyone. But that erases the experiences of its marginalized characters and strips the film of its power. A film can be both great and not about everyone. Moonlight isn’t so much about conjuring up a mythic story about a common humanity as it is about empathizing with the concrete stories around us—or around some other people in some other city, living lives that aren’t like yours, but are as real as yours.

About halfway through the film, teen Chiron has a moment of physical intimacy with Kevin. Immediately afterward, Chiron shrinks back, apologizing. “What have you got to be sorry for?” Kevin asks him.

Moonlight points to a vision—for all the Chirons out there, in particular—where there’s nothing to be sorry for in living one’s own story. And Jenkins, with art and empathy, proves there’s nothing to be sorry for in showing those deeply personal stories.