In this occasional feature, two Torontoist staffers face off to debate an issue that is important to our city. We invite our readers to join in the debate in the comments section after the post.
Public consultations are currently underway for a controversial plan that would establish Toronto’s first black-focused or “afro-centric” alternative school. Supporters of the plan claim that this will help provide black students with a nurturing environment, but a vocal opposition claims that the idea smacks of segregation and goes against long-standing policies of inclusion and equality. Read on as Torontoist has its say on the issue…
We learned this week that Dalton McGuinty is “not personally comfortable” with the idea of black-focused schools. He didn’t have much more to say about it than that, other than to provide some empty platitudes about how our public schools can bring people together.
“Not personally comfortable.” I believe that this also the Premier’s stance on the issue of boxer shorts. It is also typical of the level of thought that most otherwise liberal and open-minded people are willing to devote to the idea of black-focused schools.
This idea is not a new one. It was first suggested in Ontario in 1995 by a Royal Commission on Education as a means of helping to raise the graduation rate of black students. Unfortunately, the moment the idea is raised, something deep within the liberal conscience is tweaked.
Though many of us are too young to have any personal memory of it, we share in a collective television-memory that is full of stock footage of the March on Washington. In our minds we carry grainy images of a girl battling her way into a segregated school, and we imagine Martin Luther King rolling in his grave at the mere suggestion of setting up a black-focused school here in Toronto, the paragon of all things multicultural.
The problem with our gut-reaction is that we are confusing legal equality with substantive equality. Legal equality is already well established. Even in scary places like the American South, people of every race are supposed to be considered equal before the law. No one can tell you where you can have lunch, sip from a water fountain, or attend school based on the colour of your skin. Unfortunately, this legal equality is cold-comfort in a world where substantive equality, the true equality of opportunity, is still sorely lacking.
One type of opportunity that white students enjoy today is the ability to attend school in an environment where they don’t feel discriminated against. White students are constantly immersed in an environment that celebrates their cultural heritage and presents them with positive role models with whom they can identify. If you ask many black students and their families if that is the case for them, they will tell you that it is not. These families argue that establishing a black-focused school will create the environment that white students already enjoy.
When white people tell blacks that they must go to a black-only school, that’s segregation. When black people ask for the right to have a black-focused school, that’s empowerment.
To deny black families something that many of them believe will help their sons and daughters, just because of our nagging liberal guilt is just plain wrong. It’s time to get over the ideas that you are “personally comfortable” with and embrace ideas that, though they might make you a bit uncomfortable, are as ultimately high-minded and forward-thinking as the Civil Rights Movement itself.
THE EXPLOSIVELY TALENTED CHRISTOPHER BIRD
Let’s begin with what I’m not suggesting: I’m not suggesting that black students in Ontario don’t have serious problems (because they obviously do). I’m not suggesting that we do nothing about it (because we obviously have to do something). And I’m not suggesting that the problems at hand don’t have their root in racial bias (because they probably do).
But that doesn’t make provincial funding of segregated schools the answer. Yes, voluntarily-segregated charter schools in the United States have shown some success, on a scale of “very slightly better” to “incredibly dramatic improvement.” But that’s the result of money being injected into systems that benefit black students. Remember, public school funding in the United States actively works against inner-city schools which contain the majority of black students. Is it really such a newsflash that if you spend money on students and give them attention, they then perform better?
And we’re emphatically not spending enough on black students, the majority of whom live in Ontario’s largest municipalities, most of which have less total funding than they did ten years ago. In one of the most dramatic examples, consider Toronto (which has a large portion of the province’s black students)—where school funding per student is lower than it was in 1997, according to the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.
The CCPA also notes that the current funding formula makes no allowance for “local priorities,” which includes addressing the needs of the local culture of a school. These would include things like black-focused school clubs, for example, which most experts agree are needed quite urgently.
In the end, however, the problem with black-only schools isn’t that they aren’t necessarily the best policy answer, but that the philosophy behind them is profoundly anti-Canadian. Ontario is the most diverse province in Canada, and Toronto is the most diverse city on Earth. Some people will tell you that multiculturalism is a policy pushed on Canadians by the government. These people are idiots, because anybody who lives in Toronto knows that multiculturalism isn’t just a government policy, but the new reality of living here, and furthermore that it isn’t going away any time soon.
As a matter of course, we expect Ontarians to be able to handle dealing with people of innumerable cultures, creeds and races on a daily basis, and we hamstring black students’ ability to deal with people differing from their cultural norm by segregating them (even by their own choice) at an early age, when we ideally want them to become comfortable with cultural difference as soon possible. We need to address black students’ problems within the existing system.
This isn’t to say that people shouldn’t have the right to educate their children in the manner that they see fit, even if that manner means insulating their child from society at large. But that’s why private schools exist in the first place; to provide educational initiatives that the province cannot, in good conscience, choose to support. And black-only schools are exactly that type of initiative.