A Historical Analysis of Anti-Black Racism in Ontario’s Educational System
In February 1989, the Rushton-Suzuki Debate on race and intelligence dominated center stage as Canada and the Western world turned their attention to the words of John Philippe Rushton, a Canadian professor of psychology at the University of Western Ontario (Odida, 2022). With the academic community, new media representatives, and over two thousand members of the general student population watching expectantly, Rushton confidently defended his argument in favour of the supremacy of certain races in areas of intelligence, criminality, and sexuality (Edwards, 2019). Specifically, Rushton argued that “Orientals” were more intelligent than Caucasian people who were more intelligent than Black individuals (CBC Archives, 1989). The psychologist called upon his own scientific research as evidence of racial correlations thereby insisting on science as a basis for racial differences. This especially tense debate, in which Rushton asserted that Black people were “cognitively inferior” and should consistently be found on the lower end of the IQ spectrum, took place in London, Ontario on the grounds of a fully accredited Canadian post-secondary institution- that is, a societal institution from which the highest forms of scholarship and research of a nation is expected to emanate (Edwards, 2019).
Whilst this event occurred some 35 years ago and Rushton’s argument has since been widely denounced, his words still encapsulate some shroud of unease over the institution of education within Canada and, beyond that, the entire landscape of learning for racialized and/or marginalized students. In this paper, I will explore the evolution of institutional racism in education in Canada, specifically the manifestation of anti-Black racism in our educational systems. Adopting the methodology of historical analysis, the paper will investigate the school-to-prison pipeline phenomenon of the 1990s, the re-popularization of academic streaming practices in the 2000s, and the current political and legislative backlash against Critical Race Theory being incorporated into schools.
It is not unlikely for the average Canadian to reject the notion of institutional racial bias within the educational system. Oftentimes, the influence of race on pedagogical policies within Canadian learning institutions are overshadowed by the spotlight on American educational systems. Compared to its southern neighbour, Canada has the reputation of being more equitable, diverse, and unprejudiced (James & Turner, 2017). However, this reputation has been long shattered for the Black population of Canada to whom it is abundantly clear that anti-Black racism has been an issue for quite some time in the educational system and has managed to undergo major metamorphosis over the past several decades. The school-to-prison pipeline is a perfect example of how institutionalized racism in Canada is eclipsed by similar but more overt processes occurring in the United States. While countless research papers have been published on the emergence of this phenomenon in American public schools, research on Canadian perpetuation of the pipeline has been relatively invisible. This invisibility is essential in maintaining the power structure that is affirmed by the school to prison pipeline. Moreover, the lack of publications, data collection, and statistics on Canada’s involvement in the pipeline makes it immensely difficult to hold the system accountable. Instead, the educational failure of many Black students across the province are attributed to the individual, with commentary from school boards that excuses systematic racism as “isolated incidents” (James & Turner, 2017).
The school to prison nexus refers to the set of punitive polices, practices and socialized behaviours or attitudes employed within schools that funnel minority, racialized, or disadvantaged students towards the criminal justice system and further away from academic success (Bernard & Smith, 2018). African Canadian male students continue to be the group most affected by these disciplinary actions although the effects of the pipeline may be experienced by any student based on their race, class, gender, disability, sexual orientation, etc. (Bernard & Smith, 2018). Instead of a pedagogy that instills courage, curiosity, and self-determination into the mind of a marginalized child, the school to prison pipeline sustains pedagogical practices that push students onto the streets, through suspension and expulsion, or directly into incarceration, through policing in schools and zero-tolerance policies (Salole & Abdulle, 2015). The school to prison pipeline also addresses how schools themselves may often reflect prison environments and orients a student’s mind and body to that of a prisoner. In the school to prison pipeline, education becomes a tool of control instead of a path to freedom. Evidence of this punitive system can be demonstrated by the legal policies integrated in Canadian educational systems.
The Ontario Safe Schools Act of 2000 was designed for the purpose of enhancing safety in schools, however, the exact opposite effect was seen when the act resulted in the disproportionate criminalization of students from disadvantaged backgrounds and increased rates of violence within educational institutions (Salole & Abdulle, 2015). The legislation implemented a zero-tolerance policy within schools as well as empowered school administration with increased abilities to suspend, expel, and call police officers on students considered deviant (Bernard & Smith, 2018). Naturally, this policy worked against Black students who were more likely to have conflicts with school administration due to typical hyper vigilance of Black bodies and thus more likely to be suspended, expelled, or arrested (Daniel, 2017; Swain & Noblit, 2011). For example, in the Peel District School Board, Black students account for 10.2% of high schoolers yet make up 22.5% of total suspensions (Carter 2020; Odida, 2022). Similarly, another study showed that approximately 1 in 15 young Black men in Ontario has faced jail time compared to 1 in 70 young white men despite “comprising just 3.5% of the overall Canadian population” (Owusu-Bempah et al., 2021; Odida, 2022). Extra time that is afforded by suspension and expulsion frequently pushes students onto the streets where they have a higher chance of encountering law enforcement or, in the case of school arrests, directly pushes them into juvenile detention centres and the criminal justice system. Furthermore, once a student gains a criminal record, they are alienated from the rest of their peers and their career choices become severely inhibited. Ultimately, incarceration leads to a feeling of hopelessness in that student’s future and to the destruction of the collective possibility of the Black community (Bernard & Smith, 2018).
The adverse effects of the Safe Schools Act were inescapable for the provincial government resulting in the disintegration of the policy in 2008. However, with the end of the zero-tolerance policy came the School Resource Officer (SRO) program which introduced “29 uniformed police officers into Toronto schools” (Salole & Abdulle, 2015). The replacement of one harsh disciplinary strategy with another caused the rates of educational success for Black students to remain stagnant instead of improving. This can be seen through the Toronto District School Board where 69% of Black students made it to graduation compared to 84% of their white peers from 2006 to 2011- the same period in which the zero-tolerance policies were overturned and the SRO program was launched (James & Turner, 2017; Odida, 2022). Thus, the school to prison pipeline remains to be severed within Ontario’s educational system. Though comparison between schools and prisons has been drawn for quite some time (Foucault, 1977), the continuation of punitive education well into the 21st century is enough to merit the attention of disadvantaged communities who bear the brunt of its impact. As Henry Giroux notes in Disposable youth: Racialized Memories and the Culture of Cruelty, the increased normalization of punitive education which allows minority students to be “miseducated, criminalized and arrested” is a prime example of how deep rooted “institutional violence” has become in daily life (Giroux, 2016). Similar to the school to prison pipeline, contemporary academic streaming practices is another practical manifestation of anti-Black racism in the institution of education in Canada.
Pedagogical practices employed by a teacher within the classroom have significant impact on the trajectory of a student’s life. As was discussed in Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of Freedom, the standard educational model of the West, for which he coined the term “banking system of education”, places the teacher at the centre of learning and as the sole authority of truth (Freire, 1998). This ‘banking system’ remains the default model of Canadian elementary and secondary school systems where obedience, regurgitation, and conformity are demanded from young students. Thus, in this type of educational setting, the teacher wields immense power in shaping a student’s identity and determining their educational journey (Bernard & Smith, 2018). If a teacher cannot imagine the educational success of a particular student, it will be difficult for them to condition that student into creating success for themselves. As Freire asserts, “to educate is essentially to form” (Freire, 1998). The question then becomes: to form who and for what purpose? When it comes to Black students moving through the Ontario educational system, academic streaming practices indicate that teachers intend to form mindless workers for a neoliberal society rather than critical thinkers capable of commanding their own path. Although Black students may hope for an education that cultivates them into adults who are bold, critical, and creative, academic streaming practices tend to silence the unique voices of marginalized students, employ colour- and class-blind strategies of assessing students’ abilities, and disproportionately place minority students into applied or essential streams of learning. This systemic issue is further exacerbated by the emphasis on individual responsibility that is promoted by neoliberalism. The refusal to nurture the talents offered by marginalized students ultimately renders them disposable in the educational system. Black students streamed into applied or essential pathways easily become cheap, exploited labour for the neoliberal society (Davis, 2013). Thus, academic streaming practices essentially highlight the dispensability of Black futures. There is no doubt that these practices are a form of institutionalized racism in Canadian education.
Academic streaming refers to the “practice of separating students into distinct schooling streams based on their perceived ability” (To, 2020). The concept of academic streaming dates back well into the 19th century before racialized individuals were even considered to receive formal education (Clandfield et al., 2014b). Over the years, streaming policies have been amended as learning institutions adapted to accommodate contemporary thinking and were even being phased out entirely at one point in time (To, 2020). However, the current model of academic streaming was readopted in 1999 with high school students being streamed into one of academic, applied, or essential pathways (To, 2020). Unfortunately, multiple studies have indicated that marginalized students are excessively disadvantaged by streaming practices. At the forefront of negatively impacted students, Indigenous, Black, and low-income individuals are significantly overrepresented in both applied and essential streams (To, 2020). For example, a study done by the Toronto District School Board showed that although Black students make up 12.6% of the total number of students, they constitute 23% of applied courses and 30% of essential courses (Clandfield et al., 2014a). A more recent study found that academic streams across York, Toronto, Durham, and Peel regions consisted of 81% white students compared to 30% Black students (James & Turner, 2017; Odida, 2022).
Fundamentally, the notion of academic streaming relies on acknowledging difference amongst students (Clandfield et al., 2014a). Admittedly, it is impossible to avoid the presence of differences between human beings, however, this particular pedagogical practice “occurs on the axes of gender, race, class, disability, ethnic and identity differences” (Clandfield et al., 2014a). These types of distinctions that are relied upon to separate students into academic streams are often beyond a student’s control making the practice inherently discriminatory. Moreover, academic streaming creates a standard for educational achievement that all other outcomes must be compared. As Clandfield et al. (2014a) asserts, the “universalization” of one scholarly result allows others to be “denormalized and their interests rendered invisible”. Thus, streaming fatally links racial background to educational outcomes for Canadian students and conserves neoliberal, Eurocentric values via biased pedagogical practices.
Furthermore, another manifestation of anti-Black racism in Canadian educational institutions is the recent backlash surrounding Critical Race Theory (CRT) being used as a framework for anti-racism in the Ontario school curriculum. A well-known barrier to education that racialized students experience is underrepresentation of their stories and histories in standardized curriculums (James & Turner, 2017). This erasure of Black history in Western school systems is, unfortunately, a mature and sophisticated practice employed to eradicate the collective consciousness of an entire group of people. A prime example of this erasure can be seen in June 2022 when the Durham Catholic District School Board removed definitions of terms such as ‘white supremacy’, ‘anti-Black racism’, ‘microaggression’, ‘reparation’, ‘intersectionality’ and ‘colonialism’ with the passing of its new anti-racism policy (Follert, 2022). Ultimately, the decision was made because of the connection that these terms have to the language of Critical Race Theory, a concept that raised considerable concern for the school board (Follert, 2022).
Ironically, in a policy created to promote anti-racism, the school board deliberately ignores the historical significance of the banned terms in the development of racism and chooses to exclude and/or silence the perspectives of Black, Indigenous, and other racialized voices that CRT hopes to emphasize. Beyond that, the school board seems to deny the systemic and/or structural nature of racism, which Critical Race Theory explains is built into our societal institutions, and rather adopts an understanding of racism that is individual (James & Shah, 2022; Follert, 2022). This misattribution of racism to the individual and the subsequent fragile response of the school board allows prolonged monotonousness or a business-as-usual approach to education where marginalized students are subjected to neoliberal, colourblind and ‘apartheid’ pedagogy which “inadequately [addresses] the history and ongoing manifestations of racial injustice and [perpetuates] significant racial achievement and opportunity gaps in student outcomes” (Shah et al., 2022; Giroux, 2021). Moreover, the outright banning of CRT in schools highlight a larger orchestrated movement that diminishes the notion of freedom for students and instead concentrates on monitoring public thinking. Students are not able to effectively consider, critique, or challenge complex theories such as CRT when educational institutions censor knowledge rather than inspire critical thought.
When attacks on education, such as the ones we have discussed in this paper, come to fruition, and jeopardize the envisioning of the future of our society, it is imperative that students, especially racialized ones, know how to effectively resist and respond. This is where radical education and shifts in mindset become useful. One example of this is the abolitionist mindset that Angela Davis speaks about in Angela Davis still believes America can change, especially as it relates to the punitive education Black students experience in the Canadian educational system (George, 2020). Students and teachers both need to explore beyond the conventional educational model and imagine a new way of operation that aligns with the purpose of education in a free, equitable society (George, 2020). This reimagination of society is certainly not an easy feat as it will require the collective spirit of those currently involved in the system. It is this collectivity, or social responsibility, that will achieve racial justice within Canadian educational systems and conceive a social institution of education that is anti-racist, anti-oppressive, and pro-humanity.
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