“Polite” Racism

Feeling like I’ve been picking on religion too much in my Monday morning think pieces, I’ve decided to re-publish some essays I wrote during Black History Month in February, 2010. This post, which originally appeared on Facebook on Monday, February 15th, 2010, is part 5 of a 6-part series on race and racial issues.

This will probably be everyone’s least favourite post in this series, but it’s a topic that I find the most fascinating and most dangerous – Canadian racism, or racism in the “post-racial” utopia we supposedly have. I say least favourite because it makes everyone uncomfortable, particularly white people in my generation (my own friends included). Nobody likes to be accused of being racist, and I would imagine that most people honestly believe they aren’t, and harbor no active anti-racial sentiments or prejudices. You won’t have to look very hard to find someone who will say that racism isn’t a serious problem in Canada, or find someone who makes the statement “we don’t have racism in Canada” – a patently absurd claim.

The nature of racism has changed a great deal in the past handful of decades. The face of racism, as we’re used to seeing it, comes in the form of hooded Klansmen, burning crosses, police with dogs and hoses turning on angry crowds, lynch mobs, the whole nine yards. We’re used to seeing a system where people actively and overtly discriminate against other people based on their skin colour or ethnic heritage. After a prolonged fight (much less rancorous here in Canada than in the States), we have overthrown that kind of racism. Even within my lifetime, I’ve seen a difference in the tenor of public discourse.

So does that mean that racism is over? Have we finally reached that level playing field? Can we please stop talking about racism and racial issues?

Not on your life.

We may not have police dogs, we may not have lynchings, we might not call people racial slurs (at least to their faces) anymore, but we have not solved the racism problem. We’ve just cleaned it up. We gave people language to avoid offending people, we passed laws to make it harder to discriminate based on race, we went out of our way to put non-white people in prominent, visible positions. All of these have been seen as important, positive steps toward a bias-free society. I see things a little differently.

Imagine if medical science progressed to a point where we could develop such effective anti-sneeze, anti-cough, decongestant, muscle stimulant medications so that the common cold would be completely invisible. A person with a cold would simply pop a handful of pills and be completely symptom free. In fact, taking them prophylactically would ensure that symptoms would never develop. He’d be able to go about his life as though he wasn’t sick. As long as he kept taking the pills, he’d never have to see the effects of illness. However, the reality would be that there’s a serious problem happening inside his body; a problem that doesn’t go away just because it can’t be seen. This person wouldn’t even be aware that he was sick, would take no corrective actions in his life to deal with the susceptibility to illness that made him sick in the first place, and might even go so far as to deny the existence of illness in his body.

By successfully attacking the symptoms of racism – the hate groups, the discriminatory hiring laws, the violence – we have lulled ourselves into thinking that we have solved the underlying problems of racial discrimination and injustice. A friend on comments in another post (on Facebook) actually pulled the “but there’s a black president now” card. As though one black man getting elected to one high office is evidence that justice has been done and everyone should just get over their racial issues and hold hands under a rainbow.

Racism is still alive and well. We still don’t have proportional representation in political life. The poorest people living in the worst conditions are, even in Canada, predominantly dark-skinned. Our history of treatment of Native peoples and our continued discrimination against them is still happening every day. If ability is evenly distributed among the human population, then opportunity should be as well. What we should see if this is the case is a meritocracy in which power is held by those who are the most able. Such a system would look far more multi-cultural (and gender balanced) than the one we have today. One doesn’t have to look too far beyond our own senate and parliament to see that we just ain’t there yet.

Furthermore, by denying the existence of the problem, we grow up unable to see the evidence in front of our own eyes. We become unable to distinguish racial prejudice from bad luck, or circumstance, or a real lack of ability. I was stunned recently to hear someone say “well maybe there just aren’t enough qualified people from minority groups to run for high office.” This little gem is one of the oldest in the book, cited frequently when discussing Affirmative Action laws in the United States. If innate ability is evenly distributed throughout the population, but achievement is not, then we have a racist system. On an even playing field, success will be based on innate ability and hard work, and the best and brightest will move to the front of the line. Again, we’d see a much different distribution of power/race. The fact that we don’t means that either a) the playing field isn’t as even as we’d like to think it is, or b) ability is not distributed evenly throughout the population. Looking at the world, I’m more inclined to believe A over B, but if you honestly think it’s B I’d really like to see some evidence of that.

If we move back for a moment to the analogy of the man with the medicated cold, one would expect occasional flare-ups of sickness when compliance with the drug regimen slips. Our sick man forgets to take his pills one day, and the next day he’s got a runny nose, sneezing, etc. He quickly bombards his system with more pharmaceuticals and the illness subsides until the next time he forgets.

Enter Michael Richards’ tirade; enter Don Imus’ nappy headed ‘hos; enter Mitt Romney’s invocation of Baja Men; enter George Bush’s reaction to Katrina. These are high-profile (and recent) examples of what happens when symptoms are suppressed but the underlying problems aren’t dealt with. It doesn’t take a lot of scratching of the surface to unearth the racial problem. As I said, the problem is far worse in the United States than in Canada, but it’s still happening here.

Reading this, one might get the impression that I think the problem is as bad as it’s ever been. That is not my feeling. We are far better now than we were in my father’s time. I can work where I want, get access to the same government services as anyone else, marry whom I choose, vote, protest, and exploit my human rights. 50 years ago this was inconceivable for many people (both black and white). We’ve absolutely come a long way. However, we haven’t fixed the problem, and our denial and refusal to discuss it has only forced it underground to a place where it’s so subtle, we don’t even know it’s influencing our decisions. As far as we’ve come, we still have miles more to go.

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  1. Nicole says

    Phenomenal article. You nailed it. I was researching for days now for an assignment and your article brought everything into perspective with such clarity I can now do justice to my argument. Thank you so much. It would be an absolute honor to shake your hands.

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