When Austin Clarke came to Toronto from Barbados in 1955, he was shocked to encounter, at Union Station, a black washroom attendant "dressed in a white butler's jacket and black trousers" handing him "with ironic dignity" a "white towel."
It's likely that the washroom attendant was limited both by his unequal education and the open practice then of reserving the best jobs for white men. In contrast, although he was a new arrival, Clarke was a graduate of West Indian schools that, despite their Eurocentric orientation, were "Africentric" in terms of their incidentally black (but really British) pupils and excellent teachers.
The real difference, then, between the black men's room "waiter" and the black University of Toronto student was that the former was shaped by a system that viewed him only as a servant and unskilled labourer for white folks, while the latter emerged from a system that needed professionals to help advance the nation.
In part, I think that's what Africentric school advocates desire, the kind of rigorous, community-connected African and Caribbean schools that nurtured (and still do) an enviable number of scientists, lawyers, doctors and engineers, as well as Nobel laureates.
Note that a 1997 McGill University review of the 1991 Canadian Census found that 3.5 per cent of African-Canadian men hold graduate degrees, a figure exceeding the average of 3 per cent for Canadian men as a whole. My guess is that that number reflects immigration rules favouring skilled workers, professionals and students, not the calibre of Canadian schools.
Those African-Canadian parents who dream of schools that will inspire their youth to succeed are justified in seeking them, for, although Toronto boasts an unparalleled degree of social integration (we work and play together fairly harmoniously), economic integration has not happened.
Yet Torontonians who desire Africentric or black-focused schools have been subjected to the cheap propaganda that they want "segregation."
This ingenious smear obscures the actual practice of racial segregation in Ontario schools between 1850 and the late 1950s, when, as historian James Walker states in Race, Rights And The Law In The Supreme Court Of Canada (1997), "Segregated education was imposed in most Ontario districts with a sizable African-Canadian population. "
The emotive slander of "segregation" clouds the fact that Toronto and Ontario taxpayers and politicians support schools right now that validate social distinctions, including those respecting the needs of Catholic, Aboriginal or gay and lesbian students.
Given a Toronto school system in which the majority of students are from visible minorities but 77 per cent of the teachers are Caucasian and the curriculum Eurocentric, some African-Canadian parents demand schooling that they pray will not fail their youth as badly as the standard schools seem to do.
Fundamentally, the debate is about what it has always been about: power and privilege, who may join the managerial and middle classes and from what backgrounds they may issue.
Canadian history shows public schools were instruments of social stratification. In New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Ontario - those provinces with the largest historical African-Canadian populations - black youth were so systematically denied a proper education that blacks were condemned to menial work for generations.
When I was in Grade 7 in Halifax, a civil servant from what was then called Canada Manpower dropped in to my working-class school to assign all us 13-year-olds SIN cards, because, he said, "You all will quit school and go to work."
Our multicultural society still upholds, contradictorily, a virtual caste system. (See the Supreme Court, Parliament, Queen's Park, Bay Street and the executive composition of boards, agencies and commissions.)
As recently as 2004, Doudou Diène, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on racial discrimination, told the UN Commission on Human Rights that Canada still struggles with its legacy of European colonialism, and that Aboriginal and African Canadians, specifically, deserve reparations for past harms they have endured.
We have our own potent white supremacy, whose effects are all too often publicly quantified by morticians and statisticians.
George Elliott Clarke's latest book is Trudeau: Long March, Shining Path (Gaspereau Press), a black pseudo-bio in hiphop rhymes.