I occasionally discuss the topics on this blog among my friends. Most of the time, out in meatspace, people aren’t too keen to dive into discussions of racism and social inequality (which I can understand, because most of the time we just want to have fun). One such conversation occurred between a friend and former roommate on the topic of affirmative action. She and I agreed on the value of affirmative action, but struggled to reconcile its utility with the fact that it is, at its core, a policy that discriminates based on race. The full case for and against affirmative action is too long to spell out here, but the gist of my take on it is more or less encapsulated by this comic:
That being said, if we grant that affirmative action-style programs work to reduce inequalities between majority groups and minority groups (in this particular case we are talking about race, but the principle can be extended elsewhere), and we extend the ‘preferential’ hiring practices indefinitely over time, we theoretically reach a point where affirmative action becomes discrimination against majority-group members.* One we reach that point, my friend argued, that should be the point at which we should abolish affirmative action legislation, so that everyone gets a fair shot, and race does not enter into the picture at all.
Leaving aside the major caveat in that argument aside for a moment, she makes a good point. How do we know when we’ve “fixed” racism? At what point can we stop obsessing over it? The black civil rights movement reached its most dramatic peak in the 1960s with the signing of the Civil Rights Act. I am sure there are some people who point to that historic piece of legislation as the day when the United States ‘fixed’ racism. Others from my generation like to point to the inauguration of Barack Obama as the day when the United States demonstrated, once and for all, that race was not a barrier to success. Obviously I disagree with both of these statements.
I am not losing too much sleep over where “the line” is, because I am quite certain we are nowhere near it:
Immigration has changed the face of Canadian cities, but the complexion of their city council chambers remains much the same. Visible minorities, too scarce at all levels of government, are vastly underrepresented in municipal politics. “We think of local governments as the most grassroots and closest to the people,” said Myer Siemiatycki, a Ryerson University professor who looks at the discouraging numbers in a new report, to be released Tuesday, for DiverseCity: the Greater Toronto Leadership Project. Yet “they are by far the worst in terms of having diverse identities elected.”
The municipal numbers are particularly troubling for the Toronto region, the country’s biggest magnet for immigrants. As Prof. Siemiatycki puts it, the city “aspires to be a global leader in diversity, inclusion, integration and equity.” Yet he finds that GTA municipal voters would have to elect six times as many visible-minority councillors for their numbers to match their share of the population. He also finds that four groups in the GTA have no elected members of their community at any level of government: Filipinos, non-white Latin Americans, Arabs and Southeast Asians – shocking when you consider that the Filipinos alone number 174,000.
Much of the discussion of social inequalities centre on income disparity. While I understand why that measure – both easy to measure and interpret – is attractive, it certainly does not tell the whole story. Since we live in a country that is (at least on paper) a participatory democracy, what we should see in an ideal world is representative participation from all sectors of the population. Given the power of municipal governments to decide things like housing, zoning and law enforcement, it would logically follow that those who are the most disadvantaged in those areas would have the greatest incentive to participate. What we see when we look at the data, however, is another picture entirely.
I’ve discussed this issue before in an American context, but this is not a problem that lives only south of the border. It should concern us for a number of reasons, perhaps the greatest of which is the fact that a lack of diversity isn’t good for us. This is particularly true in a city like Toronto, where decisions that affect minority communities are being made by people with little practical insight into the issues facing them. Even the most generous slice of the pies above put political office held by people of colour (PoCs) at a dismal 25.5% – nearly 15% lower than what one would expect in a truly ‘post-racial’ society.
There are a number of potential explanations for this discrepancy, a major one of which may simply be that PoCs aren’t interested in running for office. In my experience, immigrants (many of whom are PoCs) and their children are often more focussed on becoming financially secure than they are in running for office. While this is understandable, it is also lamentable because lack of political representation is prone to make wealth acquisition more difficult for immigrant families. There is also the phenomenon of “othering” to consider – fewer dark faces in city council and in parliament means that our public becomes accustomed to the image of white people in leadership roles, whereas PoCs are the “other” group – welcome to stick around as long as they know their place.
Now, I am not suggesting that we need to institute affirmative action programs for municipal elections. Such a scheme would violate basic democratic principles in a way that makes me quite uncomfortable. What I am suggesting is that, if we are interested in seeing minority political participation increase (as a means of increasing the diversity, and thereby effectiveness, of our political institutions), then we need to actively address it. We can create scholarships or internships that are targeted toward young people from minority communities. We can put a particular emphasis on civics in schools with large minority populations. If we want to get crazy, we can create tax incentives for politicians that hire staffers from certain underrepresented groups.
Whatever path we take toward reducing disparities in political participation, we have to recognize that we do not yet live in a world where inequalities do not break along racial lines. Until we see meaningful reductions in these imbalances, we can perhaps put aside discussions of where “the line” is.
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*Note – the reaching of this point is predicated on the assumption that all other variables relevant to power disparities remain constant over time, but with considerable demographic shifts happening in terms of relative size of racial majority/minority, this assumption may not be warranted.