Feb 27 2012

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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  1. 1

    I never got the class argument. If people of one race tend to be clumped together in one class rather than spread evenly across all the classes, that’s pretty much empirical evidence that we don’t live in a post racial society. It’s also evidence that we definitely don’t live in a meritocracy.

  2. 2
    F [i'm not here, i'm gone]

    Yes, the class argument is a load of shite. But it leads me to question why people feel it would be OK to discriminate against class as well. Reminds me of all those bootstrap speeches; Thanks for the advice, buddy, but your political peers won’t hire me because I’m Black and of a lower class. And now I’ve incurred debt going to school to learn how to be a better cog in your economic machine.

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

    This one is crap, too, as an explanation for why Blacks face discrimination. But it is true in a way for a lot of people, but not in the handout vs. hard work way suggested. This is an additional layer of discrimination against people who don’t want to fuck around with departmental/business/institutional/industry culture, but who just want to work and do a good job of it. And since the cultures are already discriminating against Black people, it’s kind of hard to learn your particular culture and network in it, Bob.

  3. 3

    I’ve never really been able to separate the class and culture arguments from racial discrimination, since usually I’ve been exposed to them by people trying to justify anti-black racism… but if you talk to the person long enough, you can tell that the racism came first, and argument from class/culture was just a means of trying to put a false veneer of intellectualism on it (ie, arguments of the form, “black people tend to X stereotypical trait that I dislike, therefore discriminating against them is okay” are usually what I’ve been exposed to).

    Apologies if this is a derail, but are there people who can argue from class or culture without trying to justify their racism? If so, how common are they in relation to the “I’m trying to justify my racism” types? I’ve never been exposed to it, so I’m curious.

  4. 4

    I used to be a proponent of the “race = class” argument, because it gels very well with my personal experience. I have not experienced anywhere near the kind of discrimination and anti-black hatred that I spend most of my time discussing in broad terms on this blog. Yes, there are microaggressions here and there, but by and large I’ve had smooth sailing. For a long time I chalked that up to the fact that I was middle-class and therefore outside the “real discrimination” group. It took a few years for me to see that this isn’t the case at the aggregate level – I’ve just been lucky.

  5. 5

    I have a thought: a similar analysis can be drawn up when comparing other groups in the work force – it’s well known that men and women have the same types of salary differences and positional differences. If you exclude culture/class arguments for women as well, how can we also explain for that difference in the workforce?

    I am more inclined to believe that this is less of a race issue and more of a historically maintained white-old-guy hiring privilege thing – those that are already in places of higher management (and have been for a long time), hire similar people to themselves (based on race/gender/religion/pick a group comparison to make) to positions of higher management. I wouldn’t expect that a simple “race” dimension would cover the whole explanation of the hiring phenomenon anymore than the “gender” dimension does – I would expect that it’s easier to explain the (horribly, horribly biased) hiring process via simpler ingroups and outgroups.

    As they say in (terrible) places for hiring: it’s not what you know, it’s who you know.

  6. 6

    Yeah. Exactly. That and the goalposts keep shifting. A few years ago, everyone was saying that education was the key to class. But as soon as loads of deserving people who lacked class found a way to infiltrate universities, education lost value. Everything points to class being the key to class and race being the key to race.

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