The extreme cold weather of late evokes the memory of a troubling observation I made at Robarts Library last winter. To access Robarts’ overnight hours, students are routinely required to present their TCards to the library’s security officers. One night, I watched an officer approach a young Black man, who was resting with his head down on a table in the cafeteria area. When the man could not produce a TCard when prompted, the officer demanded that he leave the library. Though the man resisted, questioning the rigid disciplinary attitude of the officer in light of the cold weather, he was forced to leave when the officer threatened to call backup.
This observation is a microcosm of the broad, complex process of securitization in our educational institutions, by which certain members of the student body are identified and targeted as threats. They are threats by virtue of their visibility — because they challenge, in some way, the image upheld by the institutions in question. And institutions like the University of Toronto can work to either neglect or actively endanger their security, situating their needs in opposition to the security of dominant institutions, worldviews, and identities.
Securitization processes are not confined to any particular group: Indigenous peoples, genderqueer folks, and sexual assault survivors, among others on campus, can attest to the ways in which these processes have targeted them throughout their lives. On the specific issue of race, however, Black students in particular endure challenges that demonstrate how securitization operates.
The criminalization of Black youth
In educational settings, Black students are seen as both threats and as deserving of threats themselves. This duality is explained in the new work Policing Black Lives: State Violence in Canada from Slavery to the Present by activist Robyn Maynard. Maynard explains how Black children, unlike white children, are not associated with vulnerability, innocence, or deservingness of safety, but are instead linked to dangerousness. In this vein, Maynard draws parallels between the segregation and neglect Black children have suffered in public schools and the cultural genocide that Indigenous children experienced in residential schools until the end of the 20th century.
On the one hand, Black students are invisibilized in terms of curriculum, instructing staff, and funding; on the other, they are treated as hyper-visible threats deserving of surveillance and discipline. Maynard importantly notes that, although male Black students are the most conspicuous targets of such practices, anti-Black racism also intersects with female, LGBTQ+, mentally ill, and undocumented identities to produce harmful educational and life outcomes.
These alarming outcomes are clear in a 2017 report led by Dr. Carl James, Jean Augustine Chair in Education, Community and Diaspora at York University. Black students are three times as likely to be suspended from school compared to white students, and make up about half the expulsions in the Toronto District School Board (TDSB). Furthermore, Black students are disproportionately streamed into poorly supported lower education tracks, as opposed to academic courses required for university, which is reinforced by teachers’ low expectations of Black students.
In turn, the police supplements the educational neglect of Black students in the name of preserving security. The Student Resource Officer (SRO) program, until recently, enabled armed police presence in TDSB schools. A primary objection to the program has been how racialized youth have felt targeted by police at schools. Furthermore, high expulsion and suspension rates continue to make Black students more vulnerable to encounters with the police in the public sphere. As Maynard explains, these practices reflect how state institutions “push” Black youth out of schools and into incarceration — hence dubbed the school-to-prison pipeline — which inhibits their ability to access further educational and economic opportunities.
Resistance at U of T
The effects of securitization in education are not confined to primary and secondary institutions. U of T is no exception given recent events demonstrating anti-Black racism on campus.
At Massey College in October, Senior Fellow Michael Marrus resigned after remarks toward a Black student referred to the “Master” of the college and invoked notions of slavery. Outrage toward the incident was couched in the context of longstanding criticism of the Master title, as well as the culture of racism in the college, which enables people in positions of power like Marrus to make such comments.
In November, the Black Students’ Association (BSA) held a town hall in response to the university’s institutional failure to adequately address anti-Black racist remarks made by students in the Faculty of Applied Science and Engineering, and to share frustrations in light of the lack of Black representation and accommodation on campus.
Given such incidents, the university’s complicity in the ongoing climate of insecurity for Black students becomes apparent. As expressed at the BSA town hall, the securitization of public education contributes to the lack of self-worth, representation, and visibility of Black students in higher-level university education.
What university and public education administrations should be doing is acknowledging anti-Black racism as a continuing obstacle to educational outcomes for Black youth, and implementing appropriate policies to challenge it. As the 2017 report recommends, administrations ought to require and diversify anti-racism training for faculty and staff, ensure curriculum reflects anti-racism and diversity, and collect race-based data.
At the same time, it is clear that Black youth are not agentless victims — rather, they are resistors striving to reclaim their own security. At U of T, one can look to the first-ever Black student graduation ceremony last summer, as well as the sense of community formed following this past fall’s incidents. In Toronto more generally, Black Lives Matter Toronto’s Freedom School aims to provide an alternative educational experience for young Black children, while years of pressure from community members and activist groups spurred the TDSB to end the SRO program in November 2017.
These achievements point to the need for and potential of long-term, sustained action. In this vein, at the BSA town hall, activist Desmond Cole encouraged the Black community to keep up visibility through the media and continue to connect specific incidents at the university to broader systemic issues.
Securitization: not single-issue
Challenging securitization will also help other communities at U of T that are similarly vulnerable. For instance, in 2016, Campus Police’s inaction at the U of T Rally for Free Speech enabled violence against members of the trans community. In fall of 2017, following a residence party, a Campus Police officer allegedly singled out and assaulted a racialized Trinity College Head, Bardia Monavari, who later alleged that the Assistant Deans had failed to protect him from harm. If not direct violence, the university has advocated for silence and suppression rather than constructive reform when critical issues threaten its reputation. Trinity College’s alleged mishandling of Tamsyn Riddle’s sexual assault case and the upcoming vote on the mandatory leave of absence policy which threatens to penalize students with mental health issues are salient examples of institutional silencing.
In spite of the difficult campus climate produced by such scandals, Alissa Trotz, Associate Professor in Women and Gender Studies, notes that students have not backed down in the face of power, but are in fact mobilizing and organizing for justice. In order for this justice to be pursued most effectively, however, we cannot restrict our understanding of these incidents as isolated or unrelated. Solidarities between and across such student struggles must be formed to expose how the university is failing students on a cross-issue, institutional level in the spirit of ultimately creating broad policy changes.
Universities are supposed to foster a safe learning environment for all students. Yet this is impossible if institutional practices target, suppress, and harm those students whose experiences juxtapose the reputable image and status quo legitimacy of the university. Given that anti-Black racism is among the most prominent avenues of securitization in education, the public education system and the university community should radically re-evaluate and reform their policies in the coming year.
Ibnul Chowdhury is a third-year student at Trinity College studying Economics and Peace, Conflict, and Justice Studies. He is an Associate Comment Editor for The Varsity.