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Black Canadians: outcomes, attitudes, and evidence

This morning I walked you through a crude statistical analysis of labour participation in black Canadians, showing that while the experiences of black Canadians runs parallel to that of African-Americans, it is not directly comparable. However, a more detailed look at the evidence suggests a slightly different picture – black men face a 22% wage gap for identical work when compared to their non-black counterparts, even when controlling for age, education, experience, and other potential explanatory factors.

There is an old truism within the black community (and a similar one among women) that one is expected to work twice as hard as whites to achieve identical success. While 22% is not 50%, it is still a fact that black men do not see the same results for their (our) hard work. Mensah spends a few pages going through two alternate explanations that are offered for this and other kinds of race-based disparities: the class argument and the culture argument, before arriving at his (and my) explanatory model: the race argument.

The class argument – “race is just a function of class”

Some theorists argue that when we measure race-based differences between groups, what we are actually measuring is a function of socioeconomic class. The solutions to these discrepancies, therefore, must be through programs targeted at class mobility rather than anti-racism.  This argument is unsurprisingly popular, as it allows us to maintain our illusion of a ‘post-racial’ society in which racism is the domain of a handful of bad people. However, the evidence (the above statistic included) does not support class as the primary explanatory factor driving inequalities between blacks and whites.

The culture argument – “blacks just don’t know how to succeed”

At its mildest, this argument says that due to chronic marginalization, poor black folks have not learned the set of values that are prevalent in (white) upper class groups. At its most nakedly racist, this argument says that black people just need to learn how to work and not expect government handouts. In either case, this argument is severely flawed under even the most casual scrutiny. The fact is that, again and again, any time we look at issues of access, black people are discriminated against on racial terms alone, even when all other things are held equal. In fact, even in simply examining our 22% statistic, we find the myth of the ‘culture of poverty’ quite exploded.

The race argument – “racial discrimination exists, explains disparity”

Those of you who have read the blog for longer than 20 seconds will recognize this as where my ideological allegiances lie. We can look (and have looked) at several different intersecting lines of inquiry in which race keeps emerging like a tangle in the ‘post-racial’ tapestry. While it may be convenient to substitute the problem (as in the class argument) or blame the victim (as in the culture argument), neither of those approaches is up to the task of explaining the observed evidence.

Mensah cites some of that evidence in this chapter, highlighting some studies in which applicants with similar qualifications but obviously different racial backgrounds applied for the same types of jobs and were hired in a pattern that strongly suggests racial discrimination. We’ve examined a study like this quite recently, but of course that was an American example. Mensah points to a Canadian study by Esses et al. in which a black South African immigrant faced hiring discrimination despite having identical credentials to a white South African immigrant. But even assuming one is able to secure employment, racial discrimination does not necessarily end there. Mensah discusses a number of ways in which racism from management may result in serious disadvantages that fall along racial lines. We have certainly seen examples of this phenomenon quite recently.

The book then pivots to a source of racism that I honestly had not considered, so sheltered am I in my ‘domestically-born Canadian’ privilege – the inherent racism of ‘Canadian experience’ in restricting certain types of hiring. Mensah wryly notes the irony of demanding that immigrants be skilled and highly educated, and then presenting few opportunities for them to demonstrate sufficient competence to practice their trade in Canada. In fact, Mensah notes, most of the managers who are doing the hiring (or not, as the case may be) of these immigrants did not have any Canadian experience themselves when they started in the work force (unless they started off self-employed)!

Finally, Mensah notes the reality that much of hiring (particularly at the higher levels, where black Canadians are underrepresented) is done through the exploitation of social networks. It was certainly the case for me that I not only got my job but my admission to my graduate degree through aggressive networking (as opposed to having stellar credentials). Whereas there are barriers for black Canadians to enter into traditionally-white social enclaves (which may be less true today than it has been in the past, but nevertheless still existent), there is a systematic and race-based force of discrimination against black Canadians (and/or in favour of white Canadians) that makes upward mobility especially difficult. Once again, this idea relies upon one’s ability to accept that racism is not necessarily an active attitude of racial resentment, but a pattern of behaviours and outcomes that can be demonstrated by individuals and institutions in equal measure.

When we see a figure like the 22% wage gap or the $8,000 income gap, or the uneven distribution of labour sectors, it is simply insufficient to explain these away as differences of class or culture. As tempting as these frameworks may be, they not only fail to address the observed evidence of race-based discrimination (which continues to pile up every time we look), but they display our persistent and pernicious ignorance of our history. As I have attempted to demonstrate over the past few weeks, the history of Canada is fraught with repeated attempts to marginalize and oppress immigrant groups, and black Canadians are certainly no exception to this. Any attempt to explain the current realities of our race relations that do not face this history down honestly will consistently fail to accurately describe reality, to the peril of us all.

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