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Breathing rarefied air

…or not, as the case may be.

So this morning I tilted my hand a bit, talking about lack of representation from visible minority groups in political circles, particularly at the municipal level. While serving in elected office is certainly an important way of contributing to society, it is not the only one.

As I mentioned, there are many potential explanatory factors for why members of visible minority groups might not run for office, not the least of which is the possibility that they may simply be uninterested in politics, but are instead focused on their careers. If it’s simply the case that the best and brightest are pursuing success in the business world, then we should see (assuming that the disparity is caused by factors other than racism) correspondingly high levels of business success. After all, these elite-level people who are eschewing a life in public service are still in the job market, and the kinds of personal skills and savvy that make for successful politicians also makes for successful CEOs. Those who aren’t running for city council must be running things from a board room, right?

Corporate Toronto lags significantly behind the public sector in the diversity of its leadership, according to a major report released Tuesday. Just 4.2 per cent of the members of corporate boards and executive teams in the Greater Toronto Area belong to visible minorities. That’s by far the smallest proportion of any of the six sectors surveyed, according to the report. Nearly 80 per cent of corporate boards and 75 per cent of corporate executive teams have no visible minority representation at all, the report found.

The corporate world compares unfavourably with the public sector, where more than twice as many leadership positions (8.8 per cent) are held by visible minorities. Government boards, agencies and commissions have the highest proportion of visible minority leadership at 22 per cent.

One of the central tenets of free-market capitalism is that the market is blind to everything except merit. If a company does things well, then it will succeed. Consequently, companies who hire the person that is best for the job will outperform those that have discriminatory promotion practices, because those companies will not necessarily have the most qualified candidates. This is the conservative response to affirmative action – that not only is it racist for putting white people at a disadvantage, but that it is entirely unnecessary because free-market forces are sufficient to mitigate the effects of racism.

And yet, when we look at the evidence, rather than the ideology, we see a very different picture. Whatever the forces at play are (and I continue to feel it necessary to point out that I don’t think that intentional racism is the largest explanatory factor), Toronto has an incredible wealth of diversity except in its positions of power. Toronto is not a city with a recent immigrant influx, either; there are a great many 3rd and 4th-generation immigrant families living in and around the GTA – more than enough time for people to become educated and climb the ladder. Even the most superficial look at the demographics at play here – a city with 40% minority population compared with 80% of boardrooms with no minority representation whatsoever - should be enough to make us strongly suspect that something is up.

It should be noted, however, that Toronto is trying to do better, and is having some measured success in that endeavour:

The report concludes that “subtle but positive” progress has been made over the three years since the first DiverseCity leadership report in 2009. Overall the proportion of visible minority leaders has increased by roughly 0.5 percentage points per year since the survey began, to 14.5 per cent in 2011.

The greatest change has been driven at the ballot box. The diversity of elected officials jumped to just less than 20 per cent in 2011, up from 16 per cent in 2009. City council is up 30 per cent. In the education sector, more than two thirds of GTA school boards and more than 80 per cent of college and university boards of governors have at least 20 per cent visible minority representation.

It has been my position, and continues to be, that if we continue to simply wait for the situation to improve through passive market forces, we will see only moderate change. It is rarely the case that a problem simply solves itself spontaneously. In a time when we are looking for innovative ways to spark the economy (although, arguably, that’s always the case), what sense does it make to cut ourselves off from a potential avenue of untapped insight and experience? Not to say that all negroes are magical, but that our current system seemingly has its doors closed to a broad swath of our society.

There may be, as I suspect there are, additional benefits as well:

The number and proportion of educated and skilled visible minorities that live in poverty belie market neutrality and speak to the objective and subjective ways that talent is overlooked. For example, an objective qualification may demand Canadian experience, but this may not be relevant to the job. Subjective assessments about “fit” and leadership may be culturally restrictive. In a 2005 report titled “The Diversity Advantage,” RBC estimated that these immigrants would add $13 billion to the economy if they were hired in the same proportion as those born in Canada, and urged governments to establish programs to better integrate them.

Failing to address the systemic and unexamined racism that exists in our society is hurting us, not only in a touchy-feely humanitarian way, but in tangible and expensive ways as well.

Now I would be a pretty lousy skeptic if I threw out a ‘racism of the gaps’ argument – that it must be racism because it’s not these other things – but I would be similarly naive if I simply ruled racism out as a factor in a fit of arch-liberalism. When a phenomenon breaks across racial lines and disproportionately disadvantages people of colour (PoCs) – a phenomenon whose outcomes carry the same force and effect of overt racism – racism is a perfectly legitimate culprit to investigate. It will take courage and purposeful action to correct these injustices, because an entire sea change is needed in our collective consciousness when it comes to understanding race/racism; however, there will be great rewards to reap once we do.

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