When should we stop?

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.


  1. Enkidum says

    Apologies for going off on a bit of a tangent – feel free to ignore.

    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.

    I agree with the basic point of this final paragraph, but I get anal about things like “Until we see meaningful reductions in these imbalances”. I think it’s fair to say that we have seen many meaningful reductions in inequality – the issue is that he haven’t seen enough reductions. It’s not like anti-racist movements have had no successes since the 1800’s, right? Similarly for feminism – it seems insane to me to say that there has been no progress in certain areas. (Although in both cases, I think it’s also important to note that in some areas, things have actually gotten worse.)

    I don’t think you intended to imply this, but the phrase as stated does suggest that we haven’t seen anything get better. The reason I get so worked up about this is that I have often run into people who refuse to admit that anything has improved. I remember an old friend who used to argue that life for American blacks hadn’t improved since the days of slavery. Similarly, I’ve met people who argue that the position of women in society has not changed for the better since the 40’s. And this view, frankly, seems insane to me.

    I’ll resist the temptation to go into a ridiculous amount of detail here, but suffice it to say that I think the progressive movement in general often encourages an all-or-nothing mentality that is actually detrimental to real progress and encourages a sense of hopelessness. Saying “when any man is in chains, then I am not free” (or whatever the quotation is) is a useful way of thinking for the purposes of spurring one to action, and Crom knows we need to be spurred to action. But it is a really bad way of thinking if one is reviewing one’s accomplishments. Obviously we are miles away from an entirely free and equal world (if such a thing is possible). But that doesn’t mean we can’t make meaningful steps towards one, and I think it is really important to recognize that we HAVE already taken some of those steps.

    Of course that’s an awful lot to take out of half a sentence that I don’t think you meant to be taken that way. So apologies for that. And I definitely agree that whatever the bar of equality is, we aren’t anywhere near close enough to it to stop trying to get any closer.

  2. Zugswang says

    I think the reason you see so few minorities in politics is precisely because of the kind of ubiquitous discrimination that prevents many from gaining financial security; limited career and educational opportunities caused by limited investment in minority communities. We don’t live in a time when just anyone can successfully run for office. Money buys elections, and even in local city councils, the people who populate it have the freedom of schedule and the disposable income to fund their own campaigns. I don’t think the lack of minorities in politics comes primarily from a lack of civic responsibility or interest; I’m fairly certain its because, while you can run for office, if you don’t have the time and money to fund a significant part of your campaign, you’re going to be fighting an uphill battle to win election.

    Same as if you grew up in a county with subpar public schools, and you’re competing for college admissions with someone who went to private schools their whole life. It’s like a hockey game where one team has to start with their center in the penalty box for the first two periods, and everyone acts like it was a fair game because they were allowed to play the final period with all their players.

  3. Beauzeaux says

    There’s no question that things have improved. I’m old enough to remember when Nat King Cole and Dinah Shore singing together on TV was very cutting edge.
    On the other hand, back in the sixties I was sure that by now racism would be a distasteful relic of bygone days — like puerperal fever or smallpox.
    Funnily enough, it’s been the Internet that has shown me how much virulent racism still exists. You only have to read the comments on any news story that has a racial component. (I skip them now.)
    I’m an old fart and I won’t live to see racism shrink to a negligable level.Sad to say. As for affirmative action, we’re a long long way from being able to cast that aside. The presence of black people in prominent positions is great. It’s inspiring. But affirmative action isn’t needed for the over achievers like Barack Obama. It’s needed for ordinary people who, if a racial minority, are expected to be twice as good as the white people they’re competing with.

  4. Crommunist says

    My apologies for the unclear language. What I was trying to say is that if we are tasked with finding the ‘tipping point’ when affirmative action can be abolished, this type of imbalance strongly suggests that we are not there yet. Major (and further) reductions of inequality must happen between now and that point.

    I have to be more careful when writing these things, because my young age means that I was born in an era where the most dramatic forms of race-based violence and discrimination were historical events. We have achieved great things in the past century, and I am trying to continue in the spirit of those gains, while recognizing that new tactics are needed. It’s definitely never my intention (stated or otherwise) to minimize the progress we’ve made, and I’m sorry if it comes across that way.

  5. Crommunist says

    I’m sure that if you talked to my dad, he’d tell you that the kind of racism he had to deal with in the 1970s is a relic of a bygone era.

    The internet commentariat is one thing, but I am less disturbed by the virulent racism of a small number than I am by the unthinking “not racist but…” racism that is still very much the norm. It is not the name-calling and overt hatred that disturbs me, it’s the “reverse discrimination” crowd that makes my heart sink. That’s probably why I spend so much time focussed on countering it.

  6. fastlane says

    I would love to see a government, somewhere, even it’s just a small local government, try my idea.

    In a democracy, the government is supposed to be representative of the people, so make it that way. It would be like jury duty or the Selective Service in the US. Half of all elected offices would have a drafted equivalent. The other half would still be elected.

    You get picked, you serve, you get the pay/benefits of the job, and then when your term is over, you have the option of going back to whatever it was you did before.

    For instance, in the US, each state would elect one Senator, the other would be drafted. Sure, you could get out of it if you tried really hard, but how many people, statistically, would want to. You start looking at the salaries of government officials, especially at the national level, and the insane perks (healthcare for life, even if you only serve two years as a representative), and I think most people would go for it.

    It would be chaos for the first few years, but I think in the long run, we might wind up with a more informed electorate (knowing you could be picked), and a government that is at least representative.

  7. Enkidum says

    Other than that half sentence, it didn’t come across that way. Agreed with everything else, anyways.

  8. Zugswang says

    Yes, it’s a lot easier to counter overt racism than it is the subconscious and subtler forms that people seem to complacently think is OK, because people who don’t think they’re being racist get indignantly defensive.

    It’s amazing to look at how, at many different times in history, so few people believed racism to be a real problem. Slave owners thought themselves as benevolent caretakers, white southerners thought “separate but equal” really was just that. Imagine what we’ll think about today, 50 years from now.

  9. DaveH says

    IIRC, there has actually been quite a bit of academic research about random selections in a democracy vs. elections. Since I am currently at work on a coffee break, and my google/wiki-fu isn’t up to finding something that fast, I will have to skip the citation. But (again, IIRC) the research showed that in many cases, random was actually better than many voting systems.

    I also always wonder about this system, and how people get selected. Should there be some sort of basic education requirement? Exclusion for convicted criminals? Or should it be truly random and complete? Here in Canada, we have no exclusions on voting or running for public office aside from citizenship and age of majority (or being the Chief or Assistant Chief Electoral Officer of Canada). But at the same time, I don’t think most people would like the idea of someone with a severe mental handicap (who would likely simply vote the way someone told them to) or a murder conviction helping run the country.

    On another note as to the article Crom cited, I was curious if it was controlled for citizenship. As far as I know, one can neither vote nor run for office as a non-citizen, even municipally. Since the communities are so immigrant dominated, there is likely a substantial chunk that have not obtained citizenship. I don’t think this would make the gap magically disappear, but I would be curious as to the size of the effect. As has been stated above, basing the debate on flawed presumptions (i.e. NO improvement has been made since slavery) is only inviting problems. Whether they are critiques from racists (either overt or the but type) or other issues, it behooves us to start from accurate numbers.

  10. Brian Macker says

    The cartoon is racist in that it assumes the behavior of some whites and some blacks in this country are representative of every white and every black.

    The fact is that the reasons for the increase in the standard of living in this country had next to nothing to do with slavery. Slavery was not invented by whites nor was it first implemented in the US. Other countries had been practicing it for millennial and never saw an increase in the standard of living. If anything slaver societies tend to lag behind other countries, as the south did the north, and is one reason they lost the Civil War. This increase in the standard of living did not solely raise the boats of whites either.

    Nor do blacks need whites to help them get ahead as this cartoon represents. West Indian black who migrate here closed the economic gap just as most other immigrants have (when adjusted for median population age and other factors.

    In fact Affirmative Action is the opposite policy from that which one would want to set up the incentives for blacks to get ahead. Worldwide preferential policies do NOT cause advancement for the majorities or minorities that have them. They cause those who are preferred to stagnate. An extensive system of make-work projects is not going to truly advance a group. In fact it will tend to corrupt them.

    There will never come a point where Affirmative Action makes whites and blacks be on the same economic level precisely because the way one gets ahead is NOT from getting things handed to you. Those who get things handed to them must live off the backs of others who actually did the work. In order to have a significant transfer there must be a much greater population of victims of this redistribution than beneficiaries. This is one reason one cannot normally use such to cause any real increase in the standard of living for the population as a whole. Predators must always number smaller than their prey.

    All in all the cartoon is morally repugnant in it’s collectivist assumptions. It is also morally repugnant in it’s assumptions about how to “get ahead”. There are more than just two ways to get ahead, off the backs of slaves, and with affirmative action, both of which have bad side effects that I have not addressed.

  11. Eh says

    Just to start with, so everyone knows what the definition is:


    It’s the oldest and most pernicious form of collectivism, of treating the group as 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?

    Well, for a start, it might be when people quit posting cartoons that a) depict white and black individuals as part of an indissoluble whole, and b) make people responsible for the sins of their ancestors (remember, the practices of african tribes was a huge part of the justification for old-fashioned white supremacism), and c) support the idea that the physical exploitation of other human beings can be practical.

    As regards affirmative action, it is two thirds virtuous and one third pernicious. To explain what I mean, there are three kinds of ‘affirmative action’. In the first instance, it is a matter of a ruthless adherence to colour-blindness, and being aware that that isn’t an automatic. If one is, say, distributing funding amongst state schools, making sure that predominantly black neighbourhoods aren’t short-changed, or that in employment, qualified candidates aren’t dismissed because of their skin colour. That’s just and right. The second can be actively seeking out underdeveloped human capital. In Africa, many long-term investment businessmen build local schools so that they’ll have an intelligent workforce in the future. Given that the most important resource is human ability, that’s not only just, it’s also rational and profitable.

    And then there is the idea that people should be employed or benefitted only because of their skin colour, or membership in a group. And that is pernicious. Very pernicious indeed.

    As regards what can be done about racism, that’s a very tricky problem, not least because there is at least some evidence that human beings are evolutionarily primed to think better of people who look like them, and less well of people who look different. There aren’t any simple solutions; in the main, I think the best thing is to rely on lots and lots of individuals simply being too decent and also too busy to go along with that murky evil.

    One thing that could be done that would be a huge improvement is the abolition of the death penalty. Platonically, I support it – that is, there are certainly crimes that merit death. Practically, however, there isn’t a government around that I can think of that wouldn’t abuse it.

    A move towards a more radically capitalist and free market system. When people are just regarded as members of a group, and what they get is dependant on what the group get, then there is a massive incentive for racism.

    Maybe something that, paradoxically, would have an immensely better effect would be an abandoning of the word ‘racism’. It’s too easily used as an epithet, and too cheaply. We’ve all heard stories of ridiculous accusations, for singing “Kung Foo Fighting” while drunkenly staggering past an asian eatery or whatever. That has the effect of crying wolf, it makes many people less likely to take the problem of racism seriously. On the other hand, if I am describing, say, the Council of Conservative Citizens, I can say that in 2001 their website said “Mixing the races is rebelliousness against God.”, that it’s members complain about “Jewish power brokers”, that immigrants are turning American into a “slimy brown mass of glop,” – I don’t really need to use the word, do I?

    Anyway, just some thoughts. By the way, if you haven’t seen the panel discussion about the film of Malcolm X’s life with Christopher Hitchens on it, I’d be very interested to hear your views.


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