Why Africentric Schools are a good idea

A number of years ago, a Black candidate for City council was denounced in the riding where he was running  for describing the chasm that existed between the Police and the (mainly) Black residents. Residents, he said, view the police as an “occupying army.”

The reaction in Toronto to his comment was a little like the divide that happened with the O.J. trial. Whether you nodded in recognition or shook your head in disbelief probably lined up with your racial background and your understanding of racism. It was one of the singular times that a bare racial divide in Toronto showed.

At a recent community consultation, parents at a school in the Beach, a  “white ethnic enclave,”  worried about the lack of diversity in their schools. They knew their children were not building skills for cultural competancy. And, the answer is larger than putting on a potluck and dressing up in national costumes, “saris and samosas,” as one author put it.

Race & racism is back on the public agenda with the establishment of an Africentric, or Black-focused, schools. However, this recent debate has not been so sharply divided along racial lines. Indeed, the “chattering classes” are torn around this issue.

Instead, we saw the school board’s white Chair, Director and half its school trustees  champion the initiative as a (partial) solution to address high drop-outs rates for Black students.

Opposition to the establishment of the schools centred around two arguments: abhorrence of anything that might move us back to the pain-filled days of segregation, and, secondly,  a worry that the establishment of the schools will absolve the Board of its obligation to teach all students equitably. These were well-argued positions put forward by progressive peoples.

Absent, also, from the call for Africentric schools were students. In fact the two student trustees stated that they would have voted against the motion if they had a vote. This worried me at first, but I think they are following the arc that many of us do – who wants to believe that the world is shaped by issues of race, especially as one begins to move into it?

Others who argued against the schools are those who have been successful, by mainstream standards. People like Lincoln Alexander. Holding onto a more monolithic view multiculturalism works for those who can afford it – most of the time.

These are valid points, made by many of my progressive friends, that establishing these schools moves towards segregation and separation, a trend which Canadians have fought, and that it relieves the system of a wider responsibility.

So let’s examine the objections to an Africentric school:

I do believe that the backlash to Africentric schools has come because of the fear of the painful historical realities of segregation. The backlash has come when, perhaps all so Canadian, when a model has been proposed that reverberates with a painful American history. This proposal reminds us of that shameful history and makes people nervous, and there is no doubt that segregation is a mistake.

However segregation is enforced separation. Africentric schools are not forced on unwilling people, and they are not exclusive. Anyone, by their choosing, may attend.

And, more fundamentally, in this free and democratic society, that withdrawal is a right, while perhaps troubling to some because of what it bespeaks – a failure of our civic institutions-, but it is a right.

Much as Canadians don’t like to admit it, separation – by choice – is defensible.

Ah, but the critics call, not on the public dime. Well, we crossed that river long ago. Native youth in Toronto are able to attend culturally appropriate schools. Catholics have their own culturally appropriate (publicly-funded) education system as part of the foundation of this nation.

To underline the parallel, even though Canadians ran separate residential schools for native children, there was, to my knowledge, no outcry when the First Nations schools were established in Toronto 30 years ago. We understood the withdrawals from the mainstream as divergent historical processes.

So, if the reasons against a Black-focused schools are shaky, what are the reasons for them?

The reasons are very practical.

1. Schools are already de facto segregated, in that there are monocultures already in existence. David Hulchanski’s work, most recently, highlighted the economical and racial divides within this city which play out geographically.

2. There is blood on the floor. Over 600 young Black men have died violently since the mid-1980’s. Tens of thousands have stopped their education and thousands have been incarcerated. Toronto police indicate that the city is safer than ever -unless you are a young Black men living in a high-need neighbourhood. The people in crisis, leaving schools behind, the places where they should most belong, are young Black men. At double jeopardy, through their race and class, we have abandoned them.

3. Parents of Black children have fought for years for an inclusive education – parents of white children were largely absent. And the system has not responded. In fact the school board’s equity department was gutted after amalgamation and has never recovered. The resources and library materials were shelved. Professional development withered. The Equity Foundation statement was never implemented (see  the Falconer report, for more).

Until the underpinnings of existing inequality is changed, until people who work full-time make a living wage, until affordable mixed housing is built in all parts of the city, until a school fundraiser doesn’t rise or fall depending on the wealth of its commuity, the “system” will continue to push those on the edge further out.

The bid for Afrocentric schools is a bid to break the power at the centre, to create another power base, from which, people who have chosen to walk away from the current system, can rebuild their strength, rally, and enter into discourse with the mainstream, from their own solid foundation. In the end, I guess I am a separatist at heart. But I also know from my fervid days in student politics that after we have established our own strength, we need to re-enter the fray.

These schools will give the strength to young people to do that, and in turn to make the system a more encompassing and inclusive one.

Understanding the Link Between Race and Academic Achievement and Creating Schools Where that Link Can Be Broken, Pedro Noguera, Closing the Achievement Gap

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