‘Dear White People’ Season 2 Tackles Current Debates About Race in America

Netflix’s “Dear White People” returns for another potent blend of sophistication and piercing social commentary. Entering its second season, this is one of the key shows about race relations as seen through the experience of millennials going to college. With wit it tackles ongoing debates about identity, race and history, but with an irreverent satirical edge. Writer and creator Justin Simien first introduced this world and concept in the 2014 film of the same name, but with a series he is free to explore multiple avenues, characters and topics. The first season was controversial to its core in the way it used a fictional Ivy League university as a microcosm of all the different groups, ideas and social trends associated with identity politics. But the key focus is race. In the second season Simien and his team make the series even more urgent and biting. Politics in America have become meaner and rougher recently, “Dear White People” returns to respond in kind, but with class.

The season begins right after the events of the last season’s finale, when tensions at Winchester University rose to a fever pitch after a blackface party thrown by white students inspired by the provocative, campus-based radio show hosted by student Sam White (Logan Browning). In the aftermath of the brawl that ensued at the party, race relations on campus are tense, but filtered through contemporary attitudes. “White guilt” and other topics are now predominant, provoking intense debates, and both white and black students confront the difference between genuine social awareness and boutique activism. But there is a darker side too. A right-wing group starts their own radio show, “Dear Right Side,” which mocks Sam and her topics of discussion. Soon she receives twitter messages attacking her as racist and even targeting the fact that she has a white father. Other key characters return as well including Reggie (Marque Richardson), who is dealing with the trauma of having a white campus cop pull a gun on him during the blackface party, Coco (Antoinette Robertson), still obsessed with getting to the top but facing unexpected life hurtles, Troy (Brandon P Bell), son of the campus dean, juggling a public image as student body president with a ferocious appetite for female company, and Lionel (DeRon Horton), former staffer at the campus paper, now exiled following the whole blackface party fiasco.

The effect of “Dear White People” is that of a collage. Every episode chooses a different character to follow. In the second season this gives ample space to catch up with everyone and learn in detail how previous events continue to affect and mold them. Each story is infused with a mix of the personal with the social. One of the most striking episodes belongs to Reggie, who becomes a personification of the intense ongoing debates about police violence, racial profiling and the experience of being a young black male. Yet there is wicked satire and humor thrown in here. Reggie takes advantage of a student’s sympathy for his plight to get laid, but post-coitus still gets PTSD-style flashbacks of the cop. But there are also moments of searing dialogue, especially when Reggie describes the immediate perception others have a black man of his stature when he walks into a room.

Sam is the anchor of the show and in season two she faces off with the kind of reactionary forces you wouldn’t think still linger in an Ivy League college, but they are actually rooted in such institutions. Every episode begins with a hilariously brilliant narration describing Winchester’s racist past, with dramatizations of its white, slave-owning founders establishing the segregationist policies of the campus. The contrast works so well because one of the points “Dear White People” likes to make is that even if such policies are now outlawed, their attitudes remain ever so present and subtle. Sam gets a text calling her a “half-breed,” and the students involved with “Dear Right People” fight back with silly, but carefully structured arguments with terms like “reverse racism.” In one scene it becomes too much and Sam breaks down. The moment is almost a metaphor for the anxiety of an era where political discourse transforms every day into more of a knife fight. Alt-right groups attacked season one, claiming it was “anti-white.” Simien channels this into writing that dramatizes the debate, forcing his characters to ponder the roots and such thinking. For some groups this may feel threatening, but “Dear White People” is about the urgent need for serious polemics.

Like every good satirist, Simien does not let anyone off the hook. One of the show’s most refined feats is how it manages to also satirize the activists and black characters. It isn’t senseless humor, but the kind of writing that provokes in order to create discussion. The episode focusing on Lionel journeys through the campus’s gay community, mixing politics in an original way. The characters debate identity politics as a fad versus genuine social observations and concerns. There is a sharp intellectualism to the writing that you don’t see in many shows about young people, yet at the same time Simien makes fun of the pompous, pretentious air of the expensively educated. Every episode is like a mini tour of the college’s corners and cliques. Coco’s story becomes surprisingly full of pathos, as she fights to become the dominant force of campus student politics, but soon finds herself challenged with the ultimate life development. Simien never treats his audience like fools, and the ending of Coco’s chapter is fearless in defying happy endings.

“Dear White People” season 2 continues the narrative of the first season, but transitions it into the current, shifting political landscape. When the first season wrapped shooting, Donald Trump had just been elected. Now the show deals with the heightened tensions and fierce political clashes dominating public discourse. Sam’s adversaries are becoming more belligerent, as indeed they are in the real world. This is a series vastly funny and entertaining, but tailor-made for this moment we are passing through.

Dear White People” Season 2 premieres May 4 on Netflix.