There are periodically – not often, mind you, but occasionally – points in race conversation when I am tempted to throw up my hands and say “you’re white, and you don’t get it! Just accept that I am right!” Oftentimes race issues require so much unpacking – privilege, history, demographics, sociology, the list goes on – that a seemingly innocuous topic or opinion actually takes a monumental effort to resolve.
Of course my “job”, as someone who blogs explicitly about race as I do, is to do such unpacking so that anyone can walk their way through the argument. Most of the time I am game for this, particularly if I can refer the person back to some article or another that I’ve written in the past. I recognize that the conversation doesn’t get completely explored in the span of a single blog post, and I get e-mails from people telling me that my work here has helped them change their minds about some race issue or other (those are really appreciated, by the way).
But there are periodically points in this conversation where I just want to cop out and say “because I’m black and I’m right, dammit!” One of those times has just reared its nuanced and complex head:
The Toronto District School Board approved the concept of an Africentric high school at a heated board meeting late Wednesday. The next hurdle, one that proved nearly fatal to the idea last spring, is for the board to identify a site for the school. Education director Chris Spence said he is hopeful the school will open in the fall of 2012 or 2013.
So there was a lot of buzz a few years back when some educators and parents wanted to open a school for black students. Faced with high dropout rates and low achievement, the idea was to have a school that explicitly catered to black students, and taught based on a curriculum designed from an Africentric point of view. The thinking was that by doing so, they could cut through some of the subtle racism present in the education system and give black students the encouragement they needed to succeed.
Liberal-minded folks across the province were left scratching their heads, caught between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, helping black students get a quality education is good. On the other hand, segregation is bad, and if we put all the black kids in one school, how will they learn to hold hands under a rainbow with the white kids? To be less snarky about it, isn’t segregation bad because it isolates students? Didn’t we fight against segregation of black students just a few decades ago?
As much as I want to just declare Africentric schools “okay” by black man’s fiat, I will attempt to break down the reasons why I support this initiative.
1. The Empirical Argument
This one, technically, should be enough. Among a population that has typically low levels of achievement, the Africentric elementary school has produced above average outcomes. Whether or not you trust the tests as a reliable measure of future success, they’re what the board uses. The fact is, the approach works in a high-risk population. Whatever it is about the Africentric approach that gets these achievements, it is sorely needed.
2. The Segregation Argument
The problems with segregation of students wasn’t simply that students didn’t have a chance to mix, it’s that the schools reinforced an underlying power divide between white students on the upper hand, and black students below them. Funding for these schools mirrored the power divide as well, such that black students didn’t get a fair shot at success, for no reason other than their skin colour. Africentric schools do not reinforce any such power divide; to the contrary, it seems that the standard schools, while technically integrated, put black students at a disadvantage.
3. The multicultural argument
This one is probably the most difficult to parse. There is a belief, among some parents, that a school for black students robs those students of the opportunity to be exposed to their non-black peers. Presumably, this means that black and white students benefit equally from being around each other. I can certainly speak to that, having attended an extremely multicultural high school. Mixing with students from a variety of backgrounds exposed me to many perspectives that I would not have had if I had attended, for example, an all-black school.
The problem with this argument is twofold. First, there are many students who, due to simple demographics, do not attend multicultural schools. I can hardly imagine that the Medicine Hat school board is going to begin bussing in children of Pakistani immigrants from two provinces away simply to ensure that every child has a brown friend. Multiculturalism is good for schools, but it is not a good in and of itself – not, at least, to the point where having a monocultural school is evil by definition.
The second problem is that this objection fails to grasp the difference in status and demographics when it comes to white vis a vis black students, versus black vis a vis white students. What I mean by this is that while there is a good chance that a white child may not interact with black people outside of school, there is a far smaller chance that a black child will not encounter white people. Despite our progress toward equality, we still live in a white-dominated country. Black kids will have multiple interactions with their white peers, even if they do not attend classes with them. This is one of the frustrating realities of race dynamics: the arguments don’t work equally both ways.
I’m not insensitive to the optics of this story: black kids getting special schools while white kids are stuck without a “Eurocentric” option. I can understand how it seems unfair under casual scrutiny. It requires a fairly high level of parsing of privilege to understand the multilayered nuances of the issue, and not everyone is there yet. Let me, in closing, offer an analogy that might help it make sense. Think of the Africentric schools as triage in an emergency room – yes, there are people who have been waiting longer, but there are others whose needs are more acute.
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