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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  1. says

    If I had to guess, I’d say most likely. I read a story about this guy who travels to vulnerable northern communities and describes substance abuse as the most serious public health crisis he sees. Of course he’s a surgeon (first Native surgeon in Quebec, donchaknow) so he’s going to see things from a very medical perspective, but in any case substance issues and lack of treatment thereof is a common issue.

  2. says

    Yeah. I’m completely guessing here, but would it be true that the crime rate in canada is on the decline like it is in the US? (what little you have) I mean, if incarceration rates are going UP when crime levels are going DOWN, that would mean that essentially previously ignored infringements on the law are now being prosecuted and/or longer sentences are being meted out for lesser infractions.

  3. jamiejames says

    I’m afraid you’ve neglected to take into account the persistence of the Indian Act, which is a government-sanctioned excuse to infantilize and disempower aboriginal peoples (especially women), and then arrest them for things any Settler could do without reprimand.

    Also, the continuing tradition of so-called “Starlight tours”, during which one or more police officers will pick up an aboriginal person, drive them out to a remote location, and either beat them within a half an inch of their life or take all their clothes and shoes and tell them to walk back into town.

    Also, the continuing tradition of brutality against aboriginal peoples once they are in police custody (before they have even gotten to a trial).

    Also, the continuing tradition of aboriginal women vanishing into thin air and the only people doing any work to solve the case being aboriginal community members who are then ignored (e.g., Pickton, Highway of Tears).

    Also, the rape of the Earth for the precious resources within, which is being combated by some very serious, very ferocious, very high-risk aboriginal activists using some pretty dangerous tactics that can and likely will result in being executed by police on site and/or arrested and subjected to life-threatening or even fatal brutality while in custody (which, as before, generally goes unnoticed and poorly investigated while the executioners are given full pay and a pat on the head when they turn in their weapons and badges).

    I could keep going, but seriously. If it isn’t apparent yet, it should be: aboriginal people are still being wiped out by a government-sanctioned cultural genocide, and they aren’t going down without going to war over it first.

  4. Jamie says

    Me again. Still mad. Still got more to say.

    Chiefly, when not facing off with the colonial government, aboriginal communities across the country still have to stare starvation in the face thanks in large part to what the rest of us are doing to their land.

    And then there’s the unanswered emergency declaration in Cree Nation reserves such as Attiwapiskat, and if THAT’S all not enough, there’s also deprivation of basic hygiene during crises like pandemic influenza — whereas everyone else gets all sorts of support including flu shots for free, reserves are deprived of something as basic as hand sanitizer, because in the infinite wisdom of the people working to advocate on their behalf, they’ll probably just drink it.

    But I guess they wouldn’t have to think that way if they were more concerned about water supply contamination.

  5. Azkyroth, Former Growing Toaster Oven says

    Since I am surrounded by aggressively privilege-blind physics students, this metaphor may be helpful.

  6. baal says

    I’m usually considered a loon for saying but the US (and Canada), having among the highest GDP per capita, should set a minimum standard of living and just up and grant it to the folks who are in need. We could start (in the US) with universal single payer health care (incl. mental health), living wage, and expanding food programs. Absent fixing some of these unconscionable lack of basics, reforms to the criminal justice systems are necessary but not sufficient.

  7. eupraxis says

    I have a question re: cis-sexism, and I am asking this in all seriousness. If anyone deems this an improper question, please just ignore it. I am not trolling.

    If someone, who in all other respects (whatever they could be) is acceptable as a mate to another person, but who is transgendered and is thereby, and only for that reason, rejected by that other person, is the latter bigoted and sexist?


  8. says

    It’s weird place for this question, as I am not a trans person, this post is not about issues affecting trans people in particular, and this blog doesn’t usually cover trans issues generally. My best guess at an answer is ‘yes’, if a person’s identity as trans gendered is the only reason a person wouldn’t be an acceptable partner then that is pretty clearly anti-trans discrimination.

  9. TaylorMaid says

    Great post! I love the metaphor; it may help get through to those who won’t accept sociological framing.

  10. stakkalee says

    I’d recommend you spend some time reading Zinnia Jones’ blog on this same network. She’s written two posts recently covering this subject, here and here. And don’t skip the comments, either (how often do you read that on the Internet?)

  11. says

    I always find it fascinating the extent to which people will advertise their own shortcomings. The above comment is a pitch-perfect example. On a post that has nothing to do with either American politics or anti-black racism, ericatkinson has decided to show up, seemingly for the sole purpose of broadcasting what a prick he is.

    You might as well have kicked in the door and bellowed “Hey everybody, look at me! I’m a stupid asshole!”

    It’s baffling. If I was this much of an evolutionary left-behind, I would try my damnedest to HIDE that shit. But not ericatkinson – no, the anonymously quiet desperation of a profoundly uninteresting and unintelligent man will simply not do for this brave and intrepid soul. Only the succor of shouting one’s own intellectual inadequacy from the metaphorical rooftops of the comment thread of an unrelated post will satisfy the irresistable urge to pronounce your own cognitive feebleness!

    In a twisted way, it’s actually kind of impressive.

  12. John Kruger says

    It is very disturbing to think that Canada might be using drug prohibition laws to incarcerate people in a racist way. Such policies have been staggeringly effective in the US.

    Sometimes I really have to kick myself for being so privileged and clueless. As a middle class white male I never really worried about going to prison, so I never really looked at incarceration statistics. I really had my mind blown to find out that African-American males suffer an incarceration rate more than five times greater than South Africa under fucking apartheid. Almost all thanks to drug arrests.

  13. ThoughtfulOne says

    Ever heard of the Dunning-Kruger effect? That explains why idiots and assholes everywhere seem hell-bent on advertising that fact to the world.

  14. smrnda says

    People should really be waking up when the prison population is rising while crime is declining, but the perception of most people is that crime is (always) increasing and has been since the good old days. I’ve found any attempt to prove with statistics that crime has decreased is just met with complete dismissal and the assertion that ‘statistics can be made to say anything.’

    I’m beginning to think that people simply want to believe crime is always increasing since it feeds into their belief that what we need is a harsher, more punitive criminal justice system. You get this with lots of pro-death penalty rhetoric, which is pretty absurd given low crime rates in nations without the death penalty.

    But on racism, something I’ve noted is that the police don’t police all neighborhoods the same. When I was in college people were using, growing and selling drugs left and right, but they weren’t likely to be busted and if they were, they could probably pay some fines and get credit for community service they’d already done. Minority neighborhoods are under siege by the police – even if usage was significantly less, there would be more busts just since the police are intent on hassling everyone they can.

    This is why I can see why young Black males run from the police. Even if they’re doing nothing wrong, plenty of Black men are in prison for crimes they didn’t commit, so when you stop for the cop, you might be going to jail for a crime you didn’t commit. I lived in a town where a young Black male was shot after a scuffle with the police and plenty of people couldn’t figure out why he would run if he wasn’t doing anything wrong. I sure could tell why.

  15. ericatkinson says

    Ever heard of the Dunning-Kruger effect? That explains why idiots and assholes everywhere seem hell-bent on advertising that fact to the world.

    Thanks for showing that you don’t have a clue as to what the Dunning-Kruger effect means.

    PZ Myers ruminating on the safety on nuclear power, that would be an example of Dunning-Kruger.

    As for people to advertise their own shortcomings, isn’t that the function of this blog the Crommunist intended for his own self?

  16. Ze Madmax says

    Thanks for showing that you don’t have a clue as to what the Dunning-Kruger effect means.

    Except that “idiots and assholes everywhere seem hell-bent on advertising that fact to the world” is one of the expected outcomes of the Dunning-Kruger effect. Or rather, because of the D-K effect, idiots are likely to act in ways that broadcast to everyone around them the fact that they are idiots, because they do not have enough knowledge on a given topic to understand how little they actually know about it.

    So Thoughtful One’s comment is accurate, as long as you don’t take it literally (i.e., idiots don’t go around yelling “I’m an idiot!” Rather idiots act in ways that make clear to others that they are idiots*)

    *Much like throwing a silly one-liner about Obama and racism in a blog post that is unrelated to American politics, actually.

  17. Kate J says

    Thanks for sharing your blog in class today (I was sitting next to you).

    I like this Newton metaphor. I also like books like this one for helping people like me (privileged, white) try to get it: (Unsettling the Settler Within-Indian Residential Schools, Truth Telling, and Reconciliation in Canada by Paulette Regan).

    Open to more recommended reading as well.


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