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Newton’s first law of racism

Having studied a tiny bit of mechanics, I find the subject extremely useful in explaining things like privilege, racism, sexism, and many of the other concepts that are the keys to reading this blog. You simply cannot successfully solve problems in mechanics without being able to recognize all the forces at play on an object, whether it be still or in motion. Failure to account for an extant force, or adding a force that does not exist, will result in you reaching an erroneous conclusion about the behaviour of whatever body is under observation.

Similarly, one cannot look at human behaviour or the impact of institutions and systems without taking all the relevant factors into account. When we allow ourselves to succumb to our privilege (or, put another way, when we fail to account for all of the forces acting on us), we draw conclusions that are not based in reality. We make decisions based on those conclusions, and on our predictions of what consequences those decisions will have. Failure to recognize either or own privilege or the prevailing forces of racism, misogyny, cissexism, heterosexism, you name it, will result in the creation of rules and systems that have unintended results.

Sometimes those results are disastrous and tragic:

The swelling ranks of aboriginal women in the federal prison system amount to “nothing short of a crisis,” says a report commissioned by the Public Safety Department. The Conservative government’s “tough on crime agenda” will only send the numbers spiralling higher, adds the report, which paints a bleak picture of native, Inuit and Métis women’s experience with the federal correctional system. It declares that “aggressive action must be taken now” to deal with the problem. “However, it is highly unlikely that the issues of such a marginalized population will receive the attention and resources necessary to even begin to address the multitude of issues.”

I have, at various times, tried to point out the racial consequences of the ridiculous and unnecessary omnibus crime bill that Canada’s Republican North government has enacted. I pointed to the racial disparities already present in the Canadian prison system and suggested that until we confront Canada’s history of white supremacy and tear asunder our national myth of “non-racist Canada”, we will continue to find ourselves in positions where we are confronting what to us are uncomfortable facts, but what are to the victims of our lack of self-criticism a complete destruction of their lives.

Upon entering prison, offenders are assessed with the aim of determining whether they should be given a security designation of minimum, medium or maximum. Aboriginal women are generally over-classified, leading to long-term negative consequences, says the report. “A higher classification level means limited or no access to core programs which impacts parole eligibility and success for re-entry into the community.”

To be sure, some of the blame here may be assigned to overt, conscious racism, perhaps on the part of overzealous police officers who are more likely to arrest and charge Aboriginal women. Perhaps we can lay some of the blame at the feet of prosecutors when they file more harsh charges against Aboriginal defendants; or maybe it’s the fault of defenders who are less likely to try to ‘plead down’ and are more likely to encourage Aboriginal defendants to accept a bargain than to fight unreasonable cases. Maybe it’s racist judges who should be taken to task for attributing a racial component to a person’s risk of reoffending, or for failing to do their constitutional duty to take all race-relevant factors into account, not just their own prejudices.

But even assuming you could account for all of those factors, we haven’t done so yet. Which is why a mandatory-minimum policy will inevitably result in the exacerbation of already-existing racism within the system. It’s Newton’s first law at work in sociology: a racist system will stay racist unless acted upon by a countervaling force of anti-racism. Some of these forces are simple evolutions of public opinion, as people begin to recognize that traditional racist attitudes are morally repugnant. Some of these forces are demographic, as the Canadian racial landscape undergoes the twin erosions of intergroup mingling and long-term immigration. But whatever these forces, they have not yet rid us of a powerful anti-Native bias that asserts itself repeatedly within the Canadian legal system.

The people who designed these mandatory minimums laws have made the elementary mistake of failing to account for all of the forces at work on the ‘object’ that is an Aboriginal defendant interacting with the various elements of law enforcement and criminal ‘justice’. If I were a less generous person, I would suggest that they intentionally ignored the existence of those forces, considering the abundance of evidence from other jurisdictions that this is exactly what happens when you institute these policies. Whether as a result of racial malice or simple incompetence, their policy is moving in a decidedly unpredicted direction, destroying not only the lives of the incarcerated women, but of the communities that rely on them for social cohesion. Considering the role that mothers play in the lives of their children, it’s not a stretch to imagine that this will have a trans-generational effect as well.

There is, as always, hope:

The report recommends “an alternative means of assessment” for aboriginal women. The correctional service has made some progress in providing appropriate help for aboriginal women behind bars, says the report, pointing to specially tailored programming introduced in 2009 that is delivered with assistance of a native elder.

And while this may have an immediate positive effect on Aboriginal women once they’ve already been through the legal system, some attention should be paid to programs that divert women away from disproportionate arrest in the first place. Of course, the ultimate goal is of course to solve the antecedents that result in the kinds of poverty, disillusionment, ostracism, and untreated mental health issues that are the antecedents to criminal behaviour, but that would require us to move beyond simple Newtonian mechanics and instead make a quantum leap forward as a society.


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