Don't Fight Racism with Racism

February 1, 2008 - Gideon Strauss

I grew up in a race-focused school, and it worked. The high school from which I graduated was among the top academic schools in our province, many of its students were active in the arts, especially in music, and a few excelled athletically.

The school represented a cohesive community, enjoyed strong parental support and fostered cordial relationships with faith communities in the neighbourhoods it served. It instilled a deep commitment to public service, encouraged the cultivation of
private virtue, and provided a solid foundation for professional achievement.

The people who ran our school cared deeply, passionately about the children they were educating. Generations of exclusion from power, economic prosperity and cultural recognition persuaded them that the future of our community depended on the education of its children in an environment that would affirm our heritage, intensify a positive sense of identity and provide us with role models who embodied our community's ideals. Our educators had the best of intentions, and by the time the
generation of students of which I was a member found itself in our school, the teachers had largely achieved their objectives.

Growing up in an Afrikaner school in apartheid South Africa during the 1970s and 1980s was to enjoy privilege. Generously funded by the government, adequately staffed with diligent and highly qualified teachers, and ideologically in harmony with the community of families it served, a school like ours could not, and did not, fail in its mission to produce students who worked hard and sought to achieve the dreams of their parents.

The race-focused education I received worked by every measure it recognized, and it was an abomination. Particularly in our history classes - but also in many informal ways - my fellow students and I had instilled in us a sense of lingering grievance
against the British in particular and the West in general: a sense of grievance rooted in the Great Trek of our ancestors out of the British-governed Cape Colony in the 1830s (in part in protest against the abolition of slavery), and in the Anglo-Boer wars
that our ancestors lost, and during which the British - with the help of Canadian troops - carried out a scorched-earth policy and interned many of our women and children in concentration camps.

Added to this sense of grievance was a sense of superiority. From the education policy pronouncements of our prime ministers to the bawdy humour of our phys-ed teachers, the message to us was clear: White people, Afrikaners in particular, are
fundamentally different from black people - we are more intelligent, have greater physical prowess, and enjoy an innate moral superiority.

The race-focused education I received succeeded in turning generations of white South Africans into racists, and served as the essential device that assured the apartheid regime of the continued support of that part of the South African population that propped it up. I recognize that there are very big differences between South Africa in the '70s and '80s and Canada today.

A race-focused school of white privilege is not the same as a race-focused school serving a troubled black community. But the motivation behind the education system in which I grew up is substantially the same as the Afro-centric school approved this week by the Toronto School Board and its consequence - whether accompanied by high grades, athletic achievement and artistic expression, or not - will be racism.

And racism - whether it is the racism of the rich and privileged, or the racism of the poor and marginalized - is a great evil. It mobilizes volatile emotions, provokes acts of aggression and perverts the souls of its perpetrators as much as it violates the
human dignity of its victims.

I am not arguing against better education for children in poverty. I am not arguing against attention to the troubles of particular cultural communities. And I am not even arguing against educational choices with diverse focuses. But I am arguing, very particularly, against schools that focus on, and therefore valorize, race.

The long legacy of racism has certainly not been overcome in South Africa. I am sure that racism will continue to trouble North America in subtle but nonetheless pernicious ways - whether Senator Barack Obama is elected American president or not. I wish black parents and educators in Toronto did not feel it necessary to fight racism with racism. They may achieve their objectives but they will, in a deeper way, fail their children.

Posted in Education, Politics.

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Originally Published

date: February 1, 2008
publisher: The Globe and Mail