Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Review: Race to Equity

[Tim McCaskell. Race to Equity: Disrupting Educational Inequality. Toronto: Between The Lines, 2005.]

At least in theory, a broad cross-section of the "progressive" political spectrum should be interested in issues of how power is and can be and should be expressed in real-life institutions. We might be interested because of our ideas about how our work in the present prefigures the change we will create, or because we want to make our groups "inclusive" and "accessible". Or maybe it is to perfect our vision for what will happen after the Big R finally arrives, or just to decide what sorts of incremental changes to pursue in the here-and-now. Or all of those. It is useful for all of us to ask: What are we aiming for? How should our organizations be structured? What changes should we seek from current mainstream organizations? How should we go about all of this?

Race to Equity is the story of one man's journey through two decades of pursuing equity work at school boards in Toronto. McCaskell is a gay white man who began his political life in the sectarian Marxist left in Toronto in the '70s. The shifts in how the school boards of the city were challenged reflected the changes in momentum in the broader society: from a focus on socialism as the answer to a more diverse but often tense and narrow identity politics in the '80s and on through to a more wholistic but still quite nuanced anti-oppression politics in the '90s and beyond. Though he does not talk about it in detail, McCaskell was also involved in some of the key queer struggles in the city in those years, including the Right to Privacy Committee which organized against police raids on bathhouses in the early '80s and in some of the militant AIDS activism in later years.

The book's biggest emphasis is on anti-racism, but it integrates discussion of efforts within the boards to address sexism, homophobia, and ableism as well. To produce the book, McCaskell did interviews with a number of the key activists involved with the issue across the decades. According to the endorsement by Alok Mukherjee (who was also employed in equity work by the board of education for part of this time), McCaskell "writes from the double perspective of an insider-outsider; someone who was in the system, but not of it, and who was always alert to the need for community leadership and activism as a precondition for change."

You might expect a book focusing on this sort of insitutional change to be a bit stodgy, but Race to Equity is nothing of the sort. Admittedly, I'm something of a sucker for this kind of book because I happen to find the inevitable bureaucratic intrigue fascinating even while it drives me to pull my hair out. Nonetheless, aside from the odd obligatory summation of this report or that set of recommendations, it reads lightly and does a good job of using the drama over who will prevail in each political skirmish to move the narrative forward.

Part of what is remarkable about the content of the book is how predictable it is, not because the writing is predictable but because mainstream North American institutions are. I have had a little bit of involvement in this kind of change work -- not as someone with much say in the decision making about that whats and the whens and the hows but mostly as a relatively inexperienced observer who contributed technical skills when necessary -- and I have read about it. That background and this book all confirm that even though the details of each situation will vary, the dynamics of progress-in-changing, resistance-to-change, and reaction-against-change seem remarkably consistent. An up side of this frustarting consistancy is that though this book examines one paritcular institution, it will likely be useful to people doing similar work in many other institutions.

The book also provides some simple but often necessary reminders to people on both sides of the (silly-to-me) reform/revolution divide: there are times when having the least-worst candidates in control does make a real difference in terms of how institutions can change in ways that impact the real lives of real people, and on the amount of space there is for using institutional resources to facilitate extra-institutional political mobilization; and almost invariably efforts for change, if they are to win anything substantive, need to have a power base in the community and not just sympathetic folks on the inside. Though I think it is a bit simplistic, there is still some truth to the idea that whatever the ruling class grudgingly grants in terms of institutions to actually meet human needs of various sorts is not out of the goodness of their hearts, but a form of paying to prevent revolution. Now, I'm not sure "revolution" in the classic sense really means much in the rich countries these days, but I think it's still safe to conclude that more good for more people will be accomplished, more baby steps towards justice and liberation taken, more groundwork for whatever sort of transformation we idealistically seek layed, if there are autonomous, unpredictable, persistent groups that refuse to stop existing and refuse to become part of the system, which welcome reforms but refuse to be satisfied by them.

As much good as I have to say about this book, however, it is ultimately a depressing one, though McCaskell goes out of his way to avoid writing it that way. The dumb stubborn power of privilege to thwart change not just through action but through inertia and disinterest is so numbing. And the entire book is a portrait of the huge amount of effort from significant numbers of people required to win even very modest reforms, and how fragile they often are in the face of reaction. Small amounts of progress in this one institution in one city required the work of many lives. And most, though not all, of the victories were wiped out by the Conservative provincial government elected in 1995. McCaskell's account of the rising tide of defeat (even as he emphasized the small victories that were still won, or at least preserved) was physically uncomfortable for me to read. The relative focus and ferocity of the backlash has shifted somewhat, what with changes in government in Ottawa and Toronto, but the momentum of neoliberalism continues resolutely forward in attacking equity, justice, liberation, and any of the other overarching goals we hold dear.

Now that's depressing.

What to do in the face of the direction of today's momentum and the inertia that exists regardless of which way the wind is blowing is not an easy answer. Personally, though I definitely believe that working within particular institutions at particular times with partiuclar goals in mind can be crucial to achieving change -- even radical change, when the times are right -- I think that anyone who has even the remotest inclination to do so should focus at least some of their time and energy on facilitating the collective exercise of power based outside. Small affinity groups of students, opposition caucuses within union locals, cultural renewal and community mobilization on reserves, direct action anti-poverty groups, unschooling collectives, community-based media response teams -- whatever, doesn't matter, just so long as a capacity to collectively do is nurtured in ways that are open to listening, reflecting, changing, and trying again.

[Edit: For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]

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