Chris Spence's Debt to the Black Community
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Chris Spence’s Debt to the Black Community

No one can expect Spence alone to own the unfulfilled promise of the socially-constructed group of people we call black.

As instances of plagiarism continue to pile up at former TDSB director Chris Spence’s door, many of those who trusted him to be a strong leader are angry and disappointed at the depths of his poor conduct.

Some are also arguing that Spence should be especially ashamed of himself for disappointing black people who viewed him as a role model.

In an op-ed published last week, former CTV and Toronto Star reporter Desmond Brown all but suggested that Spence’s plagiarism would make civil rights heroes who fought for racial equality roll over in their graves. I understand Brown’s disappointment with Spence, but I don’t understand or accept his outlandish conclusion, on behalf of black people, that beyond Spence’s actual commission of plagiarism, his “real crime was to ignore our history.” This is a shocking and dangerous overreaction—a reinforcement of a racist worldview that holds black people chiefly responsible for society’s ingrained anti-black stereotypes and prejudices.

“Here’s a guy who defied the stereotype that blacks aren’t fit to hold positions of power,” Brown lamented in his piece, titled “TDSB’s Chris Spence: The role model who failed.” He is clearly distraught at the loss of “someone I could have looked up to when I was a student, possibly averting me from an early career as a cab driver.”

But the responsibility of ensuring that black kids grow up with a sense of belonging and self-confidence falls on society as a whole, not simply on presumed black heroes like Spence.

We must therefore reject Brown’s conclusion that “Spence’s actions are an affront to everyone who fought for and demanded equality.” Injustice, plain and simple, is the affront—and to every person, living or dead, who has longed for equality. To err is human, even when you are black. If we construe one black person’s failings as a betrayal of all who share their complexion and ancestry, we are simply reinforcing the notion that some people can and should be judged differently because of the colour of their skin.

Given how thoughtfully many black social justice crusaders have explored the complex nature of identity, Brown’s reduction of this case to simple shame over black failure is particularly unhelpful. Consider W.E.B. Du Bois, who argued in his ever-relevant The Souls of Black Folk that “[i]t is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.”

Brown’s most revealing admission is that, upon initially hearing of the allegations against Spence, “[a]s a black, my first inclination was to defend him.” Many black Canadians have had a similar experience watching the beginning of a news report about a terrible crime, and hoping the accused is not black. That unfair burden is too great for racialized people to bear together, never mind any one person individually. It is also a double-standard our white peers are not expected to follow.

Brown argues that, in addition to apologizing to all students for his conduct, “Spence should have also added an apology to the black community which he has let down and embarrassed.” Would Brown similarly argue that Margaret Wente, who recently feigned an apology for what she described as “journalistic lapses,” (i.e. plagiarism) should issue a separate apology to white people for embarrassing them? Would he say that Lance Armstrong let down the white community by using banned substances during his cycling career?

No, Wente and Armstrong are rightly judged for their actions as individuals—no one presumes to evaluate all whites through their respective conduct. It is our collective shame that we cannot say the same for black people in our society.

We have to be honest about the finite impact black role modelling can have in a society so skewed against black people. This is why Brown’s comments are so troubling: they place an inordinate amount of blame on Spence for ruining a promise he could never hope to deliver on his own.

People like Chris Spence can absolutely serve as role models, but theirs is a supporting role in a feature film starring systemic racism, that veritable evil which informs people of African heritage we are born with something to prove. A collective cultural blind-spot pushes us to endow the black TDSB director with racial responsibility we would deem preposterous for someone belonging to the (functionally invisible) white race.

As a candidate for Toronto City Council in 2006, I participated in a debate on equity issues. Candidates had to submit our responses to debate questions in writing before the actual event. The debate organizer, who was critical of my written responses, accidentally copied my campaign on an e-mail to her assistant. “His answers are just as poor as the rest,” the organizer said of my submission, “which is a shame because he is black and should know better.”

There is a line, at once real and imaginary, that divides the struggles of black people from our non-black brothers and sisters. Whiteness remains the unidentified backdrop for blacks like Brown and myself to discuss unfulfilled black potential, as our white-dominated society looks on. We would all be better served by broadening the conversation beyond the presumed “black community,” to include every person who cares—or ought to care—about smashing the racial barriers that needlessly continue to divide us.