I harp quite a bit on our comfortable Canadian myth that Canada doesn’t have a race problem. While I disagree with it in principle, in practice it is true provided you are grading on a curve. Canada doesn’t have nearly the same problem with racism that places like South Africa, South America, or even many places in Europe do. Canada’s history is one of comparative tolerance… aside from the initial displacement and subsequent repeated betrayals of its indigenous peoples… and the internment of Japanese citizens during the second world war… and the treatment of black settlers in the Maritimes… okay this is distracting me from my point.
Our many failures aside, Canada does not have the same history of deeply-entrenched racial animosity and open hatred that our neighbour to the south does. Well we do, but ours is less apparent/violent. Because of our non-identical histories in this regard, we have often compared ourselves favourably to Americans. The open question, one that may never be adequately answered, is the size of that difference. With large sociological and demographic differences between our countries, and due to the diffuse nature of the variable of interest (how do you quantify how racist someone is?), it’s a question that may be beyond our capacity to answer scientifically.
However, thanks to the short-sightedness of our federal government, we may have a shot at estimating a facet of it:
More per capita marijuana arrests are made in [Washington DC] than in any other jurisdiction in the country, according to a recent analysis of MPD and FBI data by Shenandoah University criminal justice professor Jon Gettman, the former director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. Pot arrests have been rising steadily every year since at least 2003, mirroring a national trend that began in the 1990s. And they didn’t really work. “We doubled marijuana arrests and it had no effect on the number of users,” Gettman says.
But even with a high arrest rate, some people in D.C. can probably safely get high without worrying that the cops are coming. Those people are white people. In 2007, 91 percent of those arrested for marijuana were black. In a city whose population demographics are steadily evening out, that’s odd. In fact, adjusting for population, African Americans are eight times as likely to be arrested for weed as white smokers are.
If that graph doesn’t shock you, then you’re either completely heartless, or just as cynical as I am. While the rates of consumption of marijuana are roughly equal*, the arrest rate is tipped grotesquely in favour of arresting black people for marijuana possession. Now I can (and often do) speculate about the more indirect or obscure methods by which racism manifests itself, but this one is pretty clear cut: police officers are stopping and searching black people more often than they are white people. The idea of black pot smokers is more apparent in the minds of police than the contrasting idea of good, honest white folks being druggies. As a result, it becomes far more commonplace to look for drugs when stopping black District residents than white ones.
I was once invited to go to Washington, D.C. for a vacation. I politely declined, pointing out that statistics like this are why, despite my love of history and politics, Washington D.C. stands forever on my list of places that I will not visit unless I have to. Of course, most of the U.S. is like that for me, so perhaps that isn’t a big deal. Stephen Colbert once accurate described the city as “the chocolate city with a marshmallow center” – a tiny nucleus of white residents surrounded by a vast sea of unrepresented and underserved black residents. A place like that would render me incapable of functioning.
However, this does point the way to an interesting natural experiment. Now that the Republican North Party has announced its intention to pass a wildly unpopular and ineffective anti-crime bill that includes mandatory minimums for possession of marijuana, we can draw some comparisons. A few years back there was a great to-do about racial profiling in Toronto police. Many hands were wrung and pearls clutched over the fact that we, too, might be racist. With the introduction of mandatory minimums for possession, we can draw some direct comparisons between criminal justice in the United States and in Canada – are charges dropped less frequently against whites compared to blacks? Are black people stopped and searched more often, leading to a disproportionate level of sentencing? Do arrests break down by postal code?
Now it must be said that having this one statistic will not give us a measure of racism across the board. Obviously Canada has a very different rural/urban mix than the U.S. does, and segregated communities are something of a foreign concept to us, with perhaps the exception of certain suburbs. Our demographic makeup is also quite different in terms of ethnic groups, both in terms of size and in terms of sheer numbers. That being said, it will allow us to scrutinize the way we practice law enforcement, and point to areas that need our concerted attention. It is to our detriment to have one segment of our population disproportionately represented in the prison system, since it prolongs the effects of wealth and access/achievement disparities to make them into trans-generational problems.
While I don’t think it’s a good thing that we’re heading backwards in terms of crime, or that racial profiling is a tool used by law enforcement, this new bill may provide us a unique opportunity to measure the effects of both. Hopefully only for a little while, when the next government scraps the stupid legislation and spends our money on something useful. Like ponies.
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*I am sure that some pedant will whinge about the self-report nature of the scale. The absolute size of the pot-smoking population is irrelevant. You would have to provide some pretty overwhelming evidence to get me to believe that black people are 8 times as likely to lie about smoking weed than white people, which is what that nitpick implies.