Black Canadians suffer racism in the justice system. Efforts are needed to address it.

Posted on June 27, 2023 in Equality Debates

Source: — Authors: – Opinion/Editorial
June 22, 2023.   By Star Editorial Board

A report reveals that 90 per cent of Black Canadians believe that racism in the criminal justice system is a serious problem.

We’re all familiar with the popular depiction of Justitia, the Roman goddess of justice: With a scales in one hand and a sword in the other, Lady Justice’s eyes are covered with a blindfold, a powerful metaphor for the idea that justice is blind, that it’s delivered without regard to one’s personal status.

Except the blindfold originally represented the exact opposite. Initially intended as a criticism, the blindfold was added, possibly by 15th century artist German Albrecht Durer, to signify that Lady Justice was ignorant of the injustice inherent in the system.

That seems a more apt metaphor given the results of Canada’s first Black Canadian National Survey, released last week by York University’s Institute for Social Research. The survey, which canvassed the opinions of thousands of people between March 2021 and August 2022, reveals that Canadians of all ethnicities believe our justice system is rife with racial bias.

Perhaps most disturbing, 90 per cent of Black Canadians said that racism in the system is a serious or very serious problem, while 82 per cent of Indigenous people felt similarly. And roughly two-thirds of Asian Canadians and other non-white people agree.

Distrust of the justice system is, however, not limited to members of visible minority groups, as 65 per cent of white people believe racism is a serious problem.

Interactions with the police undoubtedly influenced Canadians’ views of the system, and those interactions were by no means equal: While just five per cent of white Canadians reported being stopped unfairly by the police, that number rose to 22 per cent for Black Canadians and 10 percent for non-white and Indigenous people.

And while men of all ethnicities reported higher rates than women, Black men fared the worst, with nearly one in three across the country, and in Ontario, reporting an unfair stoppage. In the coastal provinces, more than 40 per cent of Black men had the same experience.

Lorne Foster, York University’s Research Chair in Black Canadian Studies and Human Rights and one of the co-authors of the survey report, calls those numbers “stunning.”

Certainly, we don’t know what led respondents to believe the stoppages were unfair. But we do know that other data confirm the results of the survey — and some of those other data come from the police themselves.

Indeed, just over one year ago, then Toronto Police Chief James Ramer announced the results of a review of police reports: Black people weren’t just overrepresented in contacts with the police; they were 60 per cent more likely than others involved in police contact to experience police use of force.

And the racial disparity in use of force remained even when controlling for other factors, such as the type of offence investigated, the number of times the subject had had previous contact with police, and whether the police believed the subject possessed a weapon.

After eliminating these other variables that could explain the disparity, only one remains: Race.

Ramer acknowledged as much, stating “there is systemic discrimination in our policing,” and he apologized “unreservedly.” Now an apology is a good start, but it’s only a start, and must be followed by comprehensive action.

To be sure, the police aren’t alone in their disparate treatment of Black Canadians and other racial minorities. Police are, inevitably, singled out given their role on the front line of the justice system.

But they’re not the only ones guilty of bias. Much has been written, for example, about the gross overrepresentation of Indigenous people in prison, and Black people are similarly incarcerated at disproportionate levels.

When it comes to the justice system, then, racial bias is a systemic problem. And rectifying that will require not just apologies, but a concerted, thoroughgoing effort to eradicate the racism that threatens the very ideals animating and inspiring our system, and our society.

You can see those ideals, in physical form, at the Supreme Court of Canada in Ottawa. Flanking the entrance are two statues: Veritas (truth) and Justitia to the east. But this Lady Justice has her eyes wide open. This is the ideal we must work toward now, a justice system fully aware of its own injustices, and resolutely committed to eliminating them.

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