Not yet a post-racial society

Posted on June 17, 2009 in Equality Debates, Inclusion Debates – Opinion – Not yet a post-racial society
June 17, 2009.   Frances Henry, Carol Tator, Authors of Racial Profiling in Canada: Challenging The Myth of ‘A Few Bad Apples’

The recent ruling on the Parks question to challenge potential jurors on racial discrimination raises some important issues on the extent and pervasiveness of racism in Canadian society today.

In the ruling, Superior Court Judge John Murray contends that we live in different times today than when the original Parks decision was made 16 years ago. He states that in this era of Spike Lee (as opposed to Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mocking Bird) and Barack Obama, the blunt use of the racial terminology in the question makes him and others uncomfortable.

He argues that the question should be rephrased and made more generic so that a juror would now be asked if their impartiality could be maintained regardless of the race of the defendant rather than describing the defendant as a “black” person.

However, it can also be argued that not all jurors are prejudiced against all racialized persons. A person can harbour bias against, for example, Muslims but not blacks. Thus there might be some difficulty in applying the generic principle Murray favours.

It was not so long ago that a story on the Star’s front page proclaimed: “Racism is about the colour of your skin.” It featured the publication of a new book on multiculturalism in which research findings clearly demonstrated that among all of Canada’s ethnic communities, blacks reported the highest levels of discriminatory experiences and the greatest alienation from mainstream society.

The study revealed that these negative experiences and feelings continue into the second and even third generation. All ethnic groups but blacks experience upward mobility at the second generational level. Research on income disparities consistently reveals that blacks at all occupational levels, including the professions, earn less than their white and other ethnic counterparts.

Other research shows that blacks rank lowest on educational attainment and fewer, proportional to their numbers, attend or graduate from university. In fact, blacks score lowest on almost all indicators of social equality. They, along with aboriginal people, are at the greatest disadvantage in participating equally in multicultural Canada. Much of the social science research indicates that racism is the most powerful factor in keeping these groups disadvantaged and unable to fully participate in the benefits and rewards of Canadian citizenship.

Moreover, the production and reproduction of racism against blacks does not happen within the hermetically sealed walls of a specific institution or system, such as justice or policing. Our own research, along with that of many other scholars, demonstrates that blacks experience racism across a wide range of sectors, including education, where black male students continue to be singled out as “troublemakers,” “school skippers” or “drug dealers.”

School curriculum is largely devoid of the voices, stories and contributions of black Canadians. Interviews with black youths offer further important insights into the ways racism operates within the schools. Many studies have identified the ways in which schools and law enforcement agencies reinforce deep and powerful stereotypes of black youth.

An official inquiry into youth violence conducted by former Chief Justice Roy McMurtry and former cabinet minister Alvin Curling noted that racism was one of the main causes of violence among black youth.

In the same way, media in all of its diverse forms are powerful vehicles for disseminating images and ideas about black males. Studies of the print and electronic media demonstrate that, in general, the Canadian media present negative, racialized words, images, texts and explanations to reinforce notions that blacks (and particularly Jamaicans) are deviant and dangerous. The racial coding of crime as “blackness” can be readily found in news stories, television dramas, rap music and movies.

It can also be clearly identified in many other public spaces such as driving a car, crossing borders, shopping at malls, walking down the street. The idea that black males require constant surveillance is pervasive and systematic in our democratic society.

Thus while the recent judicial ruling seems to imply that Canada today has largely overcome racial inequality in relation to blacks, the judge was perhaps overly persuaded by the Obama phenomenon in the United States. All other factors, however, point to the continuance of patterns of racism and discrimination directed against blacks and, increasingly, against Muslims.

Both anti-black racism and Islamophobia are alive and well in this country and we must not allow ourselves to become complacent in the fight for social justice and equity for all Canadians.

Frances Henry is now retired as a Professor Emerita from York University. Carol Tator is a course director in the Department of Anthropology at York.


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