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Another Voice: Community must deal with the costs of racial inequality

By John J. Hurley

Canisius College recently welcomed educators and community leaders to campus for a symposium dealing with the issues of race and ethnicity and how they impact the education of our young people. The keynote speaker, Jabari Mahiri of the University of California at Berkeley Graduate School of Education, author of a provocative new book, “Deconstructing Race,” set the stage for this honest yet difficult conversation.

The event was sponsored by the Canisius College Center for Urban Education, which our School of Education and Human Services created this year as an important expression of the Canisius College mission and to focus our efforts in preparing the next generation of teachers for our struggling urban and first-ring suburban school districts.

As a Jesuit college, Canisius aims to develop students who will promote justice in the world and who – in the words of a former Jesuit superior general – have a well-educated solidarity, whose hearts are touched by direct personal involvement with innocent suffering, and whose contact with the gritty reality of the world cause them to feel it, think about it critically, respond to its suffering and engage it constructively.

We certainly have plenty of gritty reality in Buffalo, a city too often defined by the extent of its racial segregation. Race influences so many aspects of our education system, from the assignment of students in classes to the expectations we create for them.

In the past two years, the new Racial Equity Task Force, a coalition of community leaders, has attempted to come to grips with the very real costs of the racial equity gap in our community. Its report – “The Racial Equity Dividend: Buffalo’s Great Opportunity” – released earlier this year is a breath of fresh air in its acknowledgment of the costs of continuing along the racial paths we have trod for too long.

There is no more important place to start than in our education system. The Buffalo News recently highlighted the racial disparities in our schools. According to Education Trust-New York, two-thirds of students in the Buffalo Public Schools are black or Latino, while 87 percent of the teachers are white. In the Cleveland Hill School District, where 37 percent of the students are black or Latino, there is only one African-American teacher. But it’s not just race. It’s race wrapped up in poverty, in segregated neighborhoods without adequate economic opportunity, and with families exposed to myriad stresses and to violence, crime and trauma.

Canisius was happy to host this candid conversation. In its 147-year history, Canisius has always viewed itself as an integral part of the city’s fabric and has embraced its role as a contributor to the progress of the city and the region.

It is this vision of Canisius that led to the creation of our Center for Urban Education and our ongoing work with the National Urban Alliance to improve the quality of urban education in our region. We want Canisius to be a gathering place where important discussions – informed by sound research and data and propelled by our distinctly Jesuit vision of social justice – can lead to a higher truth and better outcomes for our children and families.

John J. Hurley is president of Canisius College.

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