Saturday, February 02, 2008

The Africentric school question

Toronto trustees, after a successful lobbying effort, have approved race-based Africentric schooling, and several of the usual suspects on the Right are fulminating against it. But this heated debate cuts across political and "racial" lines. Certainly Kateland and I are coming at it from reversed positions: she favours it, while I am opposed to it. Her post, passionate, outraged, is well worth the read, partly because of her melding of the personal and the political.

We need more of that kind of grounding in our political debates. I realized, in discussing the matter with her, but not soon enough, that what I had to say must appear too abstract and theoretical. I was talking, after all, to the mother of a daughter who had encountered vicious racism in junior kindergarten, in a Toronto school in the mid-nineties. I can only respond here, perhaps inadequately, and I'll try to make it personal as well.

My late partner's mother was Māori. Marianne remembered visiting a store in New Zealand/Aotearoa with her mother, to buy a school uniform. Her mother had the money in her hand, but the salesclerk refused to serve her. She left the store in tears, Marianne in tow. Marianne organized gangs at school to fight against the schoolyard bullies who victimized the Māori children, including her. When we were together, I didn't witness any instance of overt racism against her or my two step-kids. But she would tell me that my step-daughter encountered plenty of it in the Yukon, where she went to school. My stepson is a big fella, and avoided bullying. But it is striking that nearly every one of his friends is a "visible minority." (His two best friends are, respectively, a Jew and a Muslim. There is a micro-ethnography here just waiting to be written.)

Putting all of this together with Kateland's cri de coeur, I start from the premise that racialization is a social evil to be fought. "Race" is a construct, as I have argued many times--the Irish, for example, used to be considered a separate "race," skulls were collected and measured, the whole nine yards. Racialization refers to the active construction of "race." Those on the receiving end are racialized. Our society is still heavily invested in "race," however, as one can readily observe from the intensity of debates on the subject.

I don't want to get into the origins and structures of racism here. I want to be a little more immediately practical. Things are a mess in the Jane-Finch corridor. I can spout off all I like, but what about those kids, no dreams, no hope, their lives dead-ended the day they were born, a 40% school drop-out rate. What is to be done? The parents are taking an active role, pointing to the need for self-esteem, for goals, for a road-map out of the mess. It's a cry of despair, in my opinion. There's simply no other way that seems to work. Why not, as Colby Cosh suggests, give it a try?

The debate is complex. We have what I might call Martin Luther King liberals, who want a colour-blind world where people are judged by their character and not by the colour of their skin, but have no serious critique or analysis of the system that generates the opposite. They see segregation raising its ugly head once again, and are joined by conservatives who invoke MLK but whose opposition is to what they regard as the entitlement mentality--tax dollars spent on yet more social engineering, when what is needed is discipline and less gangsta rap. Some normally sensible folk worry that the next step is madrassas. Progressives, at least judging from a quick sweep through the usual ports of call, seem to have largely stayed out of the fray.

So let me stake out my position. To call this "segregation" may be symptomatic of the general problem--is the difference between Jim Crow laws and a voluntary grouping together of people, insignificant? But if the outcome is the same, one could argue, what is materially different? The conservatives opposed to this move may be right--if not always for the right reasons. We know, or should know, that it doesn't take a system of laws and Southern sheriffs to hem in a minority, keep it powerless, demand that it take responsibility, treat it like one homogeneous unit, throw money at it, erect and maintain barriers to success, prejudge it, and treat it differently, all the while claiming that we should take no account of differences. The "it," meanwhile, absorbs this and comes to identify with the very categories of exclusion that have been imposed upon it. The vicious spiral continues.

Many simply want "race" to go away, not because they are fundamentally opposed to the category, but because they want to shift the locus of responsibility away from a structure of power relations (one that they refuse to admit exists) and on to the people who have been and remain oppressed by it. Ours is a society of equal opportunity, they insist, from their positions of privilege, so if you don't make it, it's your own fault. Affirmative action is "racist," because what's needed is people taking responsibility for their own lives, not special treatment because they're part of a group that was once badly treated. And this kind of school is just more of that special treatment, funded by taxpayers to promote a suspect curriculum.

I don't think that's caricaturing the position--some of the stuff that oozed up from that quarter during Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath is caricature enough in its own right. But in the end it doesn't matter. What's at stake here is little less than survival--being a part of society, abolishing marginality, that dangerous territory where life is short and talents are erased before they're even noticed. What strategies should be employed to break down racializing structures so that, rather than demanding that "they should just be like us," (the conservative colour-blind agenda), or "they should have the same shot as anyone else in our mutual society" (the liberal colourblind agenda), or "our kids need a sense of Blackness, belonging, identity" (the identity-political agenda), we can examine the problem together and try to resolve it?

This thing is a whole lot bigger than a school. Fixing a school in this fashion isn't even a band-aid. It's capitulation, in the face of overwhelming odds, although blame does not attach to the anxious parents involved who see no way out. It's a last desperate move, an announcement of failure, a renegotiation of ghetto boundaries rather than the assumption of the broad task of abolishing them, a project that cannot be theirs alone.

What a tragedy.
The powers that be have won, yet again.

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