The second season of Wyatt Cenac’s Problem Areas premiered last week, with the former Daily Show correspondent once more taking a whole season to go deep into one particularly problematic area of American life. Last year, it was policing. This year it’s education—which, as Cenac’s signature brand of sonorously funny and sobering analysis lays out on Friday’s second episode, also involves a surprising amount of policing. Focusing on the so-called school-to-prison pipeline, Cenac talked to educators, administrators, parents, journalists, advocates, and, most affectingly, students, as they explain their experience with how the creation of “hardened schools” (think metal detectors, cops in the halls, and a decidedly Oz-look design aesthetic) program inner city kids to think of themselves as constantly under surveillance, and lock and key. You know, like a prison. “I’m already perceived as a threat,” explains a young black man named Matthew.
For Cenac, Problem Areas isn’t just about pointing out those problem areas, though, but talking to people seeking solutions to things like 80 percent of teachers being white, while students of color are disciplined and suspended in vast disproportion to their white peers. He talks to the principal of a New York high school for kids who’ve been deemed problem students elsewhere, whose philosophy of support and openness extends to having her desk in the middle of the school’s brightly decorated hallway, and from whose in-school food pantry for low-income kids Cenac unsuccessfully tries to pilfer. An advocate for racial justice in schools tears up in frustration as she talks about a society all too willing to pony up for prisons, but not for adequate schooling. And, speaking of, Cenac goes to Sing Sing, where enrollees in the prison education program talk about how they’ve sought to attain the education behind bars that they were gradually shut out of in NYC’s public schools.
As ever, Cenac peppers his Problem Areas with illuminating silliness on topics, related and not. (An inflatable auto-shaped bike cosy to keep discourteous car drivers from creaming you on your morning bicicyle commute could work.) In the only extended clip HBO’s made available from last night’s show, Cenac peers into how companies like Facebook and Amazon are compiling a massive database of personal photos in order to refine their facial recognition programs. Which they are, in turn, selling to law enforcement, all without users’ consent. (Unless you count Facebook’s labyrinthine opt-out policies that they don’t tell you about.) Here, too, Cenac offers wry commentary about the blind spots in all this corporate surveillance, including the fact that this easily-abused technology has real trouble differentiation between people with darker skin tones (no, Wyatt Cenac is not Danger Mouse), and how the fact that Amazon attempted to sell its recognition software to ICE could very well be a Jeff Bezos plot to keep vulnerable immigrants at home—shopping online. You’re always being watched is the point. Almost like you’re a high school student or something.
Wyatt Cenac’s Problem Areas airs on Friday nights on HBO. You can see the whole first episode for free here, though.