Race or Class: Addressing "black-focused" schools in Toronto

Last year, the Toronto District School Board debated whether to start collecting data based on students’ race. Now, a professor is suggesting that Toronto experiment with “black focused” schools in order to halt “the problem of black youth disengagement from school.” Once again, the question of race has been raised in trying to explain why some students tend to perform poorly in school. Last year, the Toronto District School Board debated whether to start collecting data based on students’ race. Now, a professor is suggesting that Toronto experiment with “black focused” schools in order to halt “the problem of black youth disengagement from school.” Is the problem simply that public schools discriminate against black students, or is capitalism at the root of the problem?

Professor George Dei of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) has come under fire when, in a speech in early February, he proposed that Ontario should examine the possibility of establishing “black focused” schools. According to Dei, “A black-focused school challenges the conventional educational environment and stresses the principles of responsibility, interdependence, respect for elders, transparency, and accountability. The school seeks to centre the learner in her or his own culture, history, personal location and spiritual identity” (Toronto Star, 4 Feb. 2005). Furthermore, “A black-focused school is organized around communal principles and non-hierarchical structures. In making the totality of black-lived experience relevant to all parts of the curriculum, the school would foster the social, physical, spiritual, and academic development of students. In breaking down the separation between the formal school and the wider community, incorporating the family/home and the workplace, the school offers new and creative ways of thinking about knowledge, and then engaging students to use this knowledge to make positive social changes.”

Dei’s proposal is not unique. As far back as 1991, an Ontario royal commission had suggested the implementation of black-focused schools, arguing that the primary reason that black students performed poorly in school was that they did not feel that the education system was relevant to them. Schools that were primarily staffed by black teachers, serving black students, and a school curriculum that centered around black history and culture was supposed to help a greater number of black students to graduate from high school.

The argument behind black-focused schools really does not begin to address the discrimination faced by blacks and other poor people in Toronto and elsewhere. Do students fail to graduate from high school simply because of race? In one of the last race-based studies done by the Toronto District School Board in 2000/2001, it was found that 54% of students born in Caribbean countries were at risk of not graduating from high school. However, failure rates for students of Portuguese origin were nearly just as high. 29% of “Canadian-born” students were also at risk of dropping out of high school. Besides the obvious dangerous implications of using race as an explanation for poor performance, all kinds of questions are raised. How does a child qualify for attendance at a black-only school? Recent scientific studies have made it very clear that there is no biological or genetic basis for race. Exactly what “culture, history, […] and spiritual identity” will be advanced? It is absurd to assume that there is some homogeneous group of people who have the same culture, history, and spiritual identity, because they have similar-coloured skin.

The only thing that these students really have in common is poverty – and that is something they have in common with working class youth of all races. The correlation between poverty and poor academic performance is well documented. More often than not, the poor achievers come from families where one or two parents have to work several jobs simply to put food on the table. Reading and studying with a child is simply not an option for these parents, and many kids are forced to live without present parental role models or guardians. In Toronto, like all big western cities, poverty and the lack of decent social housing force immigrant families to live in ghetto-like conditions where hundreds of other poor families struggle to survive. It is in the midst of all this poverty that kids turn to gangs and drugs in an effort to escape or change their miserable situation.

This is not to deny that there is racism and discrimination within schools. Racism is vital for the survival of the capitalist system because it divides the working class. Capitalism pits black workers and students against white, man against woman, French against English, Catholic against Protestant, and hides the real enemy – the economic system itself. Instead of fighting capitalism, the working class fights amongst itself. As the Black Panther, Bobby Seale correctly wrote: “Racism and ethnic differences allow the power structure to exploit the masses of workers in this country, because that's the key by which they maintain their control. To divide the people and conquer them is the objective of the power structure.…”

As Marxists, we are opposed to any measures that will further divide the working class. Children in particular are born without prejudice, and segregating them along racial lines is a sure fire way to instil the kind of hatred that threatens the unity of working people. We do not deny that black history and culture are not properly represented in the education curriculum. They should be included, along with the history and experiences of all working people. Instead of learning about silver spoon endowed “great white men”, children should be taught about the mass movements of people that really change society. What is lacking in our education system is an education in the struggles, triumphs, achievements and defeats of oppressed classes throughout history. This education can only benefit from the racial and ethnic diversity of our class. What is needed is not education based on race, but on class.

The only way to eliminate racism is to eliminate the economic system that breeds it and is maintained by it. Racism cannot and will not disappear until capitalism is abolished, and a new generation is born without want – without the fear of poverty and without the need to compete for a living. What we must fight for is the socialist transformation of society. Blacks of many different origins and backgrounds make up just a fraction of Canada’s working class, and it is this working class that must be united to change society. It is only with the participation of working people of all races, ethnicities, and genders that we can build a socialist society based on need and not greed. The struggle for Black liberation is inseparable from the liberation of the working class as a whole.

>>>For more Marxist analysis, read Which Way for Blacks in the USA – Black Nationalism or Socialist Revolution? available at newyouth.com.