Freedom Writers and the Economics of Race and Gender

The movie Freedom Writers is one of the most touching to have come out of Hollywood in recent years. Starring Hilary Swank in a lead role, the movie takes up a subject that is at the heart of American culture, namely juvenile delinquency and ways of dealing with it.  It also touches upon the economics of race and gender.  On a cursory viewing the story looks deceptively simple.  But when the storyline, screenplay and other nuances in the film are observed, numerous interpretations are made available. Embedded within it are themes of economics, especially that applying to race and gender.  Moreover, what comes through the narrative is the strength of character and commitment shown by Erin Gruwell as she undertakes to set right a challenging group of students. For example,

“She encounters a diverse but segregated community so racially charged, hostile and potentially combustible that she likens it to Nazi Germany. Without the support of her administrators (played by Imelda Staunton and others) and the school system, which views teenagers more as threats than scholars, Miss Gruwell devises her own methods for reaching students. She begins educating them about other young people who’ve endured wars, like Anne Frank, and simultaneously gives them journals so that they can tell their own stories, thus, giving each person a voice and a sense of value.” (Mayo, 2007, p.43)

Another test of character and commitment for Erin was the divisions within the classroom on the basis of race, ethnicity and class.  The term ‘Economics of Gender and Race’ is usually employed by economists to talk about disparities in income and work opportunities among different races and the two genders.  In the American context, these disparities are skewered in favor of white Americans, especially the White Anglo Saxon Protestant (WASP) group.  The whites generally have a head-start in terms of standard of living they are born into, career opportunities they can avail of, neighborhoods they can inhabit, etc.  Also, on average, whites earn more income than other minority groups.  A similar disparity exists among the genders, where males are favored for both positions of high office and in the incomes they earn.  In the movie Freedom Writers, the classroom under the charge of Erin Gruwell is a representative collage of these realities.  There we see white pupils born to well-to-do parents (who also perform better in exams) contrasted against pupils from minority communities such as blacks and Hispanics, who are projected to be disorganized and less disciplined (indicative of their socio-economic backgrounds).  The microcosm of the classroom is a reflection of larger realities in American society.  The semblance to reality is all the more so because the movie was based on the real life story of an American teacher of the same name – Erin Gruwell; and the school she works for Wilson High School. (Pimentel, 2010, p.51)  Hence only a person of impeccable force of character and commitment could have overcome these many disparities and bring out the creative energies.  Any other ordinary teacher in Erin’s place would have utterly failed in uniting and pacifying the group of students.

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