How does race shape the experiences, education, and achievements of Black youth?

November 22, 2022

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Today we talk about the question of race and the role it plays in shaping the experiences, education and overall life of Black youth. We are joined by Dr. Carl E. James, the Jean Augustine Chair in Education, Community and Diaspora in the Faculty of Education at York University, to further discuss this subject.


About the guest

Headshot of Carl E. James

Carl E. James holds the Jean Augustine Chair in Education, Community and Diaspora in the Faculty of Education at York University and is the Senior Advisor on Equity and Representation in the Office of the Vice President of Equity, People and Culture. He is Professor in the Faculty of Education and holds cross-appointments in the Graduate Programs in Sociology, Social and Political Thought, and Social Work.

James' research focuses on areas of intersectionality of race with ethnicity, gender, class and citizenship as they shape identity; he looks at how accessible and equitable opportunities in education and employment account for the lived experiences of marginalized community members; and the complementary and contradictory nature of sports in the schooling and education attainments of racialized students. He advocates for educational changes by documenting the experiences of racialized students at all levels of education, moving past generalizations, especially for Black Canadians. 



Carl E. James in the news

  • Change the system, not the students: Sociologist on Black lives in Canadian education - CBC
  • Ideas with Nahlah Ayed - CBCListen
  • Are 'top scholar' students really so remarkable - or are teachers inflating their grades? - The Conversation

[00:00:00] Gabriel Miller: Welcome to the Big Thinking Podcast, where we talk to leading scholars about the most important and interesting questions of our time. I'm Gabriel Miller, and I'm the president and CEO of the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences. It's difficult to think of anyone today whose work is more relevant or meaningful than our guest Professor Carl E.

[00:00:28] James, the Jean Augustine Chair in Education, Community and Diaspora at York University. He has been widely recognized for his research and contributions to education and as work helps us understand the importance of grounding our conversations around topics like race and equity in the daily experiences of the people living in our communities.

[00:00:56] Professor Carl James, it is really wonderful to meet you. It is a pleasure and a privilege to welcome you to the Big Thinking Podcast. Thank you very much for being here and making the time for this conversation. 

[00:01:09] Carl James: Thanks for having me.

[00:01:10] Gabriel Miller: Like many Canadians, I have been aware of you and your reputation for many years, mainly from

[00:01:18] your contributions to public discussions about a host of policy issues at the local, provincial, and federal levels in Canada, but getting ready for today, I've done a deeper dive on all things Professor Carl James, and it's been very interesting. And in particular, I have enjoyed reading your 2021 book, Color Matters, which is a collection of your essays over

[00:01:47] decades, including some responses and commentary from a remarkable group of other scholars who you know and who have expertise in many of the same areas. Reading about you, reading your work, what comes through for me is someone who has dedicated their career to a set of questions, uh, around race, uh, around racism, and particularly around

[00:02:16] their effects on Black youth. I wanted to ask you, you've distinguished yourself in this area. You're obviously very passionate about it, but I assume it's gotta have been at times very difficult to do this work. What led you to dedicate your talent and so much of your professional life to studying race, racism and the fortunes of young Black people in Canada?

[00:02:47] Carl James: I, I think it 

[00:02:47] Carl James: started in the early seventies, and as a Canadian and new Canadian at the time, I was very, and I was, working with young people in the low income Toronto area, many of them were young people who had just come to Canada, to join their parents. And because of the community, a significant number of them were Black and of racialized background.

[00:03:16] I wasn't much older than these young people, teenagers we’re talking about, adjusting cultural adjustment and they were having difficulties in schools. They were having difficulties building relationships in their communities, et cetera, et cetera. And there were often, sometimes, dismissed for their experiences, and it was seen as an adjustment problem.

[00:03:41] So they were adjusting to the Canadian culture, Canadian experiences, et cetera, et cetera. I thought it had to be more than just an adjustment problem. Yes. There are some adjustments that we, that's obviously evident. Is it totally adjustment? And how is that adjustment informed by other factors? How is that adjustment informed by the recency in the Canadian landscape?

[00:04:08] How is that informed by what was going on in school and the inability to connect with their teachers and difficulties? How is that adjustment informed by all these other things, by gender, any number of other factors? So I started to look at that as a issue and it, it occupied my time as I was going to university at the time as an undergraduate.

[00:04:31] So I was looking at that and, one of the things I always thought of when I did my masters in ED in university, and I started off thinking that I would look at psychology because psychology would give me some sense of understanding the experiences of these young people with whom I was working. Then, I moved to sociology, but one of the things I was interested in those early years I started to unpack that was looking at peer relations.

[00:05:00] What do relationship with peers have to do with some of the outcomes, some of directions that young people go and how is, how are peer group relationship more significant for students? For young people than their parents' relationship. And how is that informed by them being an immigrant versus if they were say third and fourth generation Canadian?

[00:05:20] Because I thought as an immigrant, young people, might have, might think they have more in common with their peer group who have similar experience to them. They’re immigrants, they're coming from the same background, they're understanding the school system in the same way and all those kinds of things.

[00:05:37] Hence, that's my, the beginning of my work. 

[00:05:40] Gabriel Miller: Race is a term I think that many of us aren't as sure as we probably want to be in terms of what we mean when we're talking about it, and how race is affecting people's lives and shaping the way we see ourselves and the world around us. What are your thoughts on what race is and in what ways have you seen through your career the concept, shape people and our society?

[00:06:14] Carl James: I always think of our Canadian society wanting to bottle race and put race aside and think that race doesn't matter in our Canadian society. And if you're going to want to look at the experiences of racialized people or Black people, therefore we might have to look at the American literature or American information because they talk about race.

[00:06:37] They have race. Race doesn’t exist there. We as a Canadian society, think of that way, but at the same time, when you look very closely and don't even have to look closely, the idea that the very nature of candor is built on race, colonialism, and racism. After all, when we think of when the British and French, or French and British came to the Canadian society, what was Turtle Island obviously.

[00:07:04]  It understood, or they saw a different group of people, you know, they were not the same race of people and therefore, so you can say that race is very built into the nature of our society. It's not just simply, race pertaining to Black, but race generally. And therefore, it's on that basis that in building Canada, we think of the genocide of the Indigenous people.

[00:07:30] We think of the situation that happened to them. We think of the enslavement of Indigenous people, and then afterwards, the fact that Africans were brought here to and enslaved to join the Indigenous people again, building on their whole idea of the need for building of Canada and notice that whole process of moving built on the whole notion of race.

[00:07:53] Notice over the years, race takes on different meaning, you know, it's not simply based on the skin colour really, because race is a social construct related to the context in which we are talking about, and it's related into the historical context and we operate based on it and, and so therefore, the dominant group will see it as, quote unquote, might not be seen as race or might not be seen as their experience as informed by race, but all of our experiences are informed by race.

[00:08:25] So it, it's on that basis that we, it was determined who would make the Canadian, you know, I was just reading some of the transcripts over the years of the Canadian federal discussion and government who would make the appropriate Canadian or the good Canada, for example, we know of Black people coming from Oklahoma, going into Alberta,

[00:08:47] were not allowed despite others coming. These were based on how we see people. So we use these constructs of race, what we see the potential of the person of these people based on race. Just as we use gender, just as we use religion, just as we use sexual identification, all those kind of things. So race is one of those many other identity factors that we use.

[00:09:12] So the Canadian society is not being outside of race. We understand race. We use race. Race is a social construct, and we operate on that basis. After all, how is it that the Indigenous people are yet to be understood as just simply part of the Canadian society from it is their land to which all of the others came. And notice how Canada over the years has been very deliberate in bringing in people.

[00:09:36] So if you'd notice the history of Canada showed you how we have controlled the flow of immigrants coming into our land, and one of the factors is what would they offer economically to our society? What, uh, the need for, for this skills and labor, but also notice that also mediated by race in the process.

[00:10:05] Gabriel Miller: One thing I would like to pick up on that is if we zoom ahead to 2022, And we look around and we see the language and the concepts we're using to understand and talk about these challenges. Now, three of the words we hear most today are equity, diversity, and inclusion. As you can't hear your account of multiculturalism without realizing as you, I think you said at the start of our conversation that it's hard to see a system when you're in it.

[00:10:40] I'm very much in a world where EDI is language we're using to understand our shortcomings, our failures are the ways we need to change. I really want you to take this question in whatever direction you think is most interesting, but I guess, can you talk a little bit about the EDI construct and its value? 

[00:11:08] Carl James: EDI and that discussion of EDI did not happen within the last three years because in England there were this SWAN report, they were discussing that among universities and she, others brought EDI to years before now we were moving towards EDI, but it became a little more urgent

[00:11:34] since George Floyd's death and the Black Power Movement and also Indigenous Cause for Decolonizing, and of course, we cannot ignore the truth and Reconciliation Report that demanded these kinds of things. But also added to this discussion of EDI is decolonizing. If we use EDI then and say, okay, the basis, the foundation of moving EDI means that we have

[00:12:02] to pay attention to the colonized society, which we live in, and then decolonize it. And Indigenous will continue to remind us about the need for that decolonizing. And to do that, we have to start off the very genesis beginning of the Canadian society and where Indigenous people fit in in that whole construct.

[00:12:21] So the decolonizing recognizing is, might be the platform, the foundation to do this. So how do we understand? Equity is always one of the questions, but when I think of thinking about equity and we say, oh, we have had a multicultural society where everybody was able to come here, live happily ever after.

[00:12:45] And if that was the case, then candor would be ahead in EDI. But that had not happened. So we have to recognize that that has not produced the kind of great communities where people are happily living. And again, remember that was in 1971, became an act in 1988, but also they, then we have the employment equity, which of course America had the affirmative action.

[00:13:10] We developed employment equity. And employment equity came, uh, came about because we thought we wanted to start thinking about Indigenous, racialized, women and people with disability. So those our employment equity. But notice with that employment equity, we lumped, racialized, or as we call it in Canada, visible minority despite what, uh, the UN has asked us about the label visible minority. 

[00:13:41] So we dumped visible minority and that grouping we did not get the necessary kind of, uh, differences because they are different. They're going to have different experiences and in so far that's the case. Then therefore, EDI needed to disaggregate at the same time when we are talking about. Multiculturalism and we are talking about employment equity.

[00:14:04] Our census did not also, Use race. Canadians were not over the years filling out census, talking about their, their, their racial background, et cetera. But that became, that was changed in the 1990s where we started getting race data until more recently we even further developed where we getting race data.

[00:14:29]  So the census therefore needed to give us a sense of our community, of our society. In terms of its general composition, and we needed to have that in terms of if we're going to really move towards, uh, equity, diversity, and inclusion. And we needed to also pay attention to disaggregating that. If the census wasn't doing it, and we just simply just lumping people and not paying attention.

[00:14:57] Therefore, you can understand that business is an institution and not keeping that kind of data. We will keep data on women, but, and other things. So in, in the absence of some of those data, then how are we going to know we have moved from one level of inclusion to another level and who had been included and who had been excluded?

[00:15:20] One of the questions we should ask them in looking at EDI, if employment equity was doing its job, why is it now that we have all these movements asking to hire Black people. So for example, universities are having programs, a number of corporations are going and looking at Black and Indigenous people.

[00:15:40] So if employment equity was working as it should, and if we, if in the case of Black, if we disaggregated racialized groups and paid attention to the differences in experience, probably we would be ahead and we would not be having these calls for the need for these kinds of…The other thing I think about when I think of EDI, I think of included into what included into a system have not changed. 

[00:16:05] So I always think of the readiness of the institutions, the organizations, the programs to have racialized people, and in this case, Black or Indigenous people and others. Inside, if it's the same system, if it's just, if nothing is done to the system, if there's not been a culture change in order to be more accommodating and accepting of them, will there be any difference?

[00:16:30] So inclusion, yes, but we have to also see there has to be some change within the organization. We cannot do the same thing, so we have to see changes in the policies. We have to see changes in the programs that have been set out and critically look at these and see how it's, over the years we have done these things and therefore probably these are the factors that we have to look at.

[00:16:58] And sometimes, so it's not just the individuals who are doing the hiring that might have done this, individuals might be operating on the policies if individuals might be operating on the culture of the culture of comfort. What if we bring somebody who is different, who brings a different idea into this organization, it'll shift the organization and therefore it might not work.

[00:17:23] Therefore, we will not get that person in. We will not hire them. So therefore, we just can't think of, yes, we're going to be inclusive, we're going to bring, we're going to have a diverse population or diverse employment group, or diverse student population and keep things the same. The policies, the structures have to change in order to do it.

[00:17:45]So it has to happen at all levels. So EDI cannot be without, what are you doing to be inclusive? How you’re understanding equity and how you’re understanding and representing that diversity and how would these people who, who come, are going to be, uh, will they be able to live in that culture and, what changes are you prepared for?

[00:18:10] And everybody must be part of this process. It cannot be just this unit because it's now wanting these kinds of people because the unit interacts with the larger system and we just can't see it as just the organizations. We have to see it as the messaging that we get from the society at large. So for example, I might maintain my construct of who is possibly a possible engineer because the media continue to present certain kinds of people as having that kind of information.

[00:18:41] So in other words, I'm trying to say that everybody and the larger society and the culture of the society have to be involved in this process.

[00:18:51] Gabriel Miller: For me, one of the really striking things about your work that I've read and that I've seen is this combination of explaining the big picture, but rooting that explanation in very specific life experiences of people.

[00:19:08] And so when I hear you talk about the dangers of a kind of broad national narrative or lumping people together, what comes through to me in your essays is, if you're not seeing that experience of real people and understanding how these systems are interacting with them, then you are missing the essence of how these forces are affecting people's lives. After the work you've done over decades, and I'm sure many, many years of more research ahead of you, what strikes you most about the experiences of Black youth

[00:19:50]  in Canada? 

[00:19:51] Carl James: What strikes me is how they live with a social construct of their competencies, their possibilities, and what they, how they might be successful in the society. I keep thinking that I'm reminded by some colleagues who work in education and how we think of people graduating from high school as the way in which we can measure some of these successes.

[00:20:19] But if you look at data, it shows that increasingly, work is going to need further education beyond high school. So how many of these young students or young Black students from very early are also directed towards doing post-secondary education? I think of the young student who must also think about what the future is.

[00:20:42] And I must think of if, for example, Black students attended to, as the research constantly shows that most of them, they're not entering university or post secular education at the same level as their peers. And when we think of the research also shows that generational differences plays a role here.
[00:21:03] Increasingly what we are seeing here is many of these university students and college tend to be first and second generation students in Canada, and this is our only candidates in the States and OECD countries, and that's what that data is showing. Therefore, we are going to have to be very diligent in saying it's not just simply the student.

[00:21:26] We have to think of how the, what we are presenting as the curriculum, what we are presenting as information that they need to become successful citizens. Think about how we might adjust our programs in order to be accommodating. And then at the same time, I think of what, what has, what the inequities that Covid has exacerbated with through the kinds of ways in which we are teaching and so forth.

[00:21:52] And so I think about, and who has left out of this process or who have been most disadvantaged because of the project and we know from research that students out of school, especially for a long time or especially summer months, we know that they fall behind and who most likely to fall behind who might not have the necessary kind of support from parents or might not have the necessary support from community because that community might not have the background necessary to support.

[00:22:23] And therefore we are gonna have to do some work. And yes, I think many Black parents that I talk to and some of my research, expect their children to go to university, push the children to get, because they see I might not have anything else, but I can. One of my best investments is education and therefore it's through education that the children will be successful.

[00:22:48] We in the larger society are not hearing that or seeing that or understanding that and paying attention to that aspirations that parents have for their children, especially immigrant parents. Then we are failing that community and therefore not doing the work that we need to do to bring about the kinds of successes we should have.

[00:23:07] And we have to think about it in another way. If all Canadians, if these groups of people are not getting the necessary kind of advanced education and so forth, we have to think of the impact that has on our medical system, our health system, healthcare system, how impact that has on the economy, on our social service system, because they're all interrelated and therefore, the more we can employ and give people the kind of opportunities necessary to be successful, our society will be way ahead.

[00:23:40] And so that's how I see what we need to start thinking and as we go forward with responding to the needs of all Canadians. And think of it this way as well, when I think of Black youth and we think of working with them again, because I look at what's happening in schools and we are doing hiring of

[00:24:08] teachers and we say, we want Black teachers and we want, and even Black professors, et cetera. I don't, I think it's not just simply to have them to teach Black students, but it's to have them, their Black teachers, to teach all students. The richness of the education that any student gets has to do with the diversity of experiences that they're able, that they're exposed to, and to be able to work not only in their own community in the Canadian society, but in the larger, larger world.

[00:24:34] So the more we can expose all our students to see how the richness of the student population, the teacher population, the richness of the student population as well. Could you imagine students sharing across differences, experiences? The richness that comes out that, and I see of that, I see that as happening.

[00:24:54] Even the universities, if we think of our leaders coming, having sat in the same classroom with people of different backgrounds, bring that to their work. Especially if it's nicely accommodated by someone who enables and enforces and exposes the diversity of experiences as legitimate and things for us to know about.

[00:25:16] Gabriel Miller: This conversation has been very similar for me to reading your work. Deeply affecting without being sentimental, always, uh, drawing on real experience and empirical evidence, but within it, finding some radical ideas, I think, and really forcing people to sit with the complexity of these issues and to be willing to be uncomfortable with the fact that some of the ideas we've probably been clinging to as the solutions, quote unquote, to some of these issues

[00:25:52]  are either not that or have much more complicated implications than we've been prepared to accept until now. With all that said, you are in part a teacher and a supervisor and mentor to future scholars. What would you tell a scholar about to head out into their career, interested in continuing the kind of work that you've done over the last three decades, what would you tell them about the mission you think there is for the next generation of researchers looking at questions of race and society in Canada?

[00:26:38] Carl James: I would always say let's pay attention to the foundation of the society and how that's some good foundation came about

[00:26:49] and how society has brought us to where we are now. And I'm always big on context. What's the current context we're in? What are some of the things that, uh, bubbling up to the surface that we must respond to? And what are the contributions are you going to make? And also think of the idea of while I want to,

[00:27:16]I will enter the discussion with race. I might enter the discussion with race. It's just an entry because there all these, I would say all these other intersecting identities that must be also brought into that discussion. And now just simply see it's merely race. So I like the idea of constantly thinking intersectionally.

[00:27:40]I always think of research I did some years ago wanting to find out about the experiences of young people in a racialized working class community, marginalized community. And so I interviewed these young people and interviewed people in Toronto, generally Black, young people in Toronto generally. And I interviewed Black young people in this community. Both of them

[00:28:07] were very keen on doing well, becoming successful, and while both want to be successful because of the need to demonstrate that I could be Black, but I could be successful, I could go to university, I could, I could become a doctor, lawyer, engineer, et cetera, et cetera. Both of them were saying those things, but the one in the marginalized community had one additional factor.

[00:28:32] They wanted to be successful as well. It's to show I could come from this kind of community in addition to my blackness. I could come from this kind of community and be successful. So the point is, these places of residence are also an intersecting factor. That, that we, and so when I work with students, or even I'm teaching students, I cannot ignore the communities from which they come along with all the other identities that I'm working with.

[00:29:12] Gabriel Miller: Thank you for listening to The Big Thinking Podcast and to our guest professor Carl E. James. Professor James is the Jean Augustine Chair of Education, Community and Diaspora at York University. I also want to thank our friends and partners at the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council whose support helps make this podcast possible and thank you to CitedMedia for their support in producing the Big Thinking Podcast. 

[00:29:39] Follow us for more episodes on Spotify, Apple Podcast and Google Podcast. A la prochaine.

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