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A tribute to Manning Marable

Monday, May 2nd, 2011

A legend of the American left, Dr. Manning Marable died on April 1st 2011. I was first introduced to Marable through his book How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America; the title a riff on Walter Rodney’s classic How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. Marable was in the tradition of great African-American socialists like WEB Du Bois and A. Phillip Randolph: democrats, radicals, and the intellectual grounding of the black freedom struggle.

On a hot Harlem afternoon in the summer of 2008, I attended Friday prayers at the Malcolm Shabbaz Mosque at 116th and Malcolm X Boulevard. Before Malcolm X’s break from the Nation of Islam, the mosque had been known as Temple No. 7, founded by Malcolm in the 1950s. Welcomed at prayers, I spoke with members of the mosque about the legacy of Malcolm. I left to interview Marable at Columbia University. He was in the midst of research for what would become his new biography, Malcolm X: a Life of Reinvention.

I found relief from the heat under the green canopy of Morningside Park. Up the stone steps that separate Black Harlem from Morningside Heights, across Amsterdam Avenue, and on to Marable’s small office just off Columbia’s historic quad. I interviewed Marable for two hours about the life and death of Malcolm. On that day, as ever, Manning Marable was gracious, generous, and of course, brilliant.  He died three days before the publication of Malcolm X: a Life of Reinvention.

He will be missed.

Obituaries in the New York Times and The Guardian:

My interview with Marable is posted on this website. Click Malcom X under ‘Tags’ on the right.

Does Harlem Have a Lesson for Toronto Neighbourhoods?

Friday, September 11th, 2009

Twenty or so years ago it would be unthinkable that Canadian policy makers and urban politicians might have something to learn from Harlem in the area of social policy. This historic neighborhood just north of Central Park was in the midst of a crack epidemic which ravaged poor communities across urban America throughout much of the 1980s and 90s. The population of Harlem, like other ghettoes in the U.S., was mainly Black and nearly all poor. Crack destroyed families, led to soaring rates of incarceration of Black men, and widespread social alienation. It was the culmination of years of urban neglect, as federal and state government’s largely abandoned the American inner-city in the wake of the urban crisis of the late 1960s and 70s.

Along a range of socio-economic indicators – from homelessness to health – twenty years ago Toronto compared favorably to New York. But times have changed. That’s why the findings of a survey of Toronto’s public elementary schools, reported in The Star on Saturday, are disturbing but not surprising. The report found that poverty and ‘race’ have an impact on levels of student achievement. Most sociologists could tell you as much, but the report’s conclusions were particularly bleak: children who live in poverty or come from certain racial backgrounds are falling behind in school as early as Grade 3. The Board is already trying to address the achievement gap through programs like Model Schools for Inner Cities, which puts more resources into schools in ‘high-needs’ areas. But it’s fighting a losing battle with social trends that show racialized poverty intensifying in Toronto.

Enter Harlem and the ideas of Geoffrey Canada. While Harlem has changed since the days of crack, it remains disproportionately poor, Black, and affected by a myriad of social problems. And like Toronto, the achievement gap between students from low-income and racialized groups and others is wide: for instance, the Black-white achievement gap in New York City means that by third grade, Black students – who are disproportionately poor – are nine to ten months behind compared to their white counterparts.

Canada is the founder and director of the Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ), a project committed to ending intergenerational poverty in Harlem. The New York Times Magazine called the HCZ, “One of the most ambitious social-policy experiments of our time”, saying no effort to break the cycle of poverty in America has been “so closely watched”. The project has been profiled on 60 Minutes and Oprah and Canada has held court with Bill Clinton and President Barack Obama. Following on research in the social sciences and neurology that show the skills gap between rich and poor kids opens up very early in life, Canada sought to build a program that would combine educational, social and medical services, following children from birth to college. For Canada, the idea was to create “a safety net woven so tightly that children in the neighborhood just can’t slip through.”

Initially the HCZ was restricted to a few blocks; it now envelopes a large section of Harlem covering close to 100 blocks and serving 7,400 children and over 4,100 adults. It combines early childhood education, programs for parents (The “Baby College”), a pre-school and grade school. As a result of this intense programming, children at the HCZ are performing at or beyond state-wide grade levels despite the continued pressures they face outside the school environment. President Obama is considering setting up similar Children’s Zones across U.S. cities as a cornerstone of his anti-poverty agenda.

Should Toronto replicate the HCZ in what the United Way calls our ‘priority’ neighborhoods, places like Jamestown, Jane-Finch, or Malvern? While targeting resources at particular neighborhoods has become a popular anti-poverty strategy for governments trying to do more with less, building universally accessible and well-funded social programs should be our priority. Expanding Ontario’s Early Years Centers to make them accessible to working parents, increasing the minimum wage, and finally making good on the promise of a universal, affordable, and public childcare system would go a long way to addressing pressing social needs. Targeted initiatives should compliment this more comprehensive approach, with programs like the TDSB’s Model Schools for Inner Cities and the phenomenal Pathways to Education worthy of increased and stable funding. Such funding should constitute any part of a serious stimulus package and be seen as an investment that will pay dividends in years to come.

For despite its success, HCZ also demonstrates the drawbacks of a small-government approach to combating poverty. The HCZ is a non-profit, community-based organization heavily reliant on private-sector donations and foundation money to survive. One would think that given its success, New York City would be looking to expand its programming and take it public across the five boroughs. But alas, in keeping with the small-government approach to big social problems, the City has not done so. And with the financial crisis hitting Wall St., the HCZ has lost millions of dollars in funding and is laying off staff and putting expansion plans on hold, imperiling the future of some of New York’s most vulnerable children.

This brings us to the difference between charity and social justice: social programs and benefits provided by the state as a matter of social rights and citizenship or services provided by non-state actors through acts of corporate and individual benevolence. Twenty years ago, many thought this distinction separated the American and Canadian approach to solving social problems and ensuring a decent standard of living for all. Despite a convergence with socio-economic trends in the U.S., in Canada we still like to think we do things a little differently. Whether we do or not could be difference between an anti-poverty agenda that is central to rebuilding our embattled welfare state in these rough economic times or leaving our future generation of at-risk youth reliant on the good deeds – and fortunes – of others.

Published in The Toronto Star, March 15 2009