Well folks, it’s February once again, which means that it’s time for my annual observance of Black History Month. For those of you who are new to the blog, every year I produce a series of posts about black history as I work my way through a particular theme. In the blog’s first year, I released a number of the posts that underpin its central dogma when it comes to race:
- What is “black”? Part 1: skin colour
- What is “black”? – Part 2: self-identity
- What is “black”? – Part 3: my working definition
- “The N Word”
- “Polite” Racism
- Three steps towards ending black-white racism
In the second year, I took a broad-brush approach to Canada’s black history, highlighting stories from Canada’s different geographic regions:
- Black History in Canada moment: British Columbia
- Black history in Canada moment: the prairies
- Black history in Canada moment: Ontario
- Black history in Canada moment: the maritimes
Last year, I took a more focussed approach and walked through a text on black Canadians, with both historical and contemporary flavours, giving a sort of ‘guided tour’ of a book by sociologist Joseph Mensah:
- Understanding black history
- Black History in Canada: some interesting stories
- Black Canadians: where, when and why
- Black Canadians: who
- Black Canadians: Making it work
- Black Canadians: outcomes, attitudes, and evidence
- Black History Month: looking back, looking forward
- Special Feature: I speak to the BC Humanist Association
I realize that’s a lot of reading to do, but if you’re new to Canadian black history, those posts aren’t (if I do say so myself) a bad place to start. This year my plan is to do something roughly similar to what I did last year – take a book on black history and walk through it in a series of posts. The one I ended up choosing is called Colour-Coded: A Legal History of Racism in Canada, 1900-1950, by Constance Backhouse.
At this point I want to make two points of clarification. First, this is not a book on black history. While there is black historical content in the book, it is not nearly as explicitly black as the Mensah book was. The second point that I think bears explication is related to the first point, and that is that black history is not the same as the history of racism. Because this blog and my personal interests focus on racism, I tend to frame black issues in terms of how they intersect with racism – as though there were no black accomplishments or developments that are not defined by racist attitudes and practices*. This is obviously not the case.
The above points bring me to the thesis I wish to discuss this year. Last year I suggested that by understanding black history, we could gain greater insight and acumen when it comes to race-relevant decisions we have to make in the contemporary era – that understanding where we came from helps us figure out where to go. This year’s thesis is that, far from being the unfortunate bigoted actions of a small cadre of ‘racists’, contemporary racial realities cannot be properly understood without acknowledging that, for many years, there was a big white thumb on the scales of racial justice.
Our history contains a multitude of examples wherein white supremacy was practiced not simply by bigots in white hoods, but (perhaps more harmfully) by bigots in powdered wigs and judges’ robes. While our memetic image of racism is dominated by lynch mobs and ‘whites only’ signs above drinking fountains, the fact is that those are only the most dramatic examples of racism – not the most prevalent. The reality is that white supremacist beliefs and practices formed a major part of the legislative and legal history of the beginnings and middle-age of our nation, and may go a long way toward explaining why we see racial inequality woven, albeit unwelcome, into our cultural fabric.
So while the racism that was visited against aboriginal people, or Chinese migrants workers, or South Asian would-be immigrants, may not be identical to the racism visited against blacks in Canada, the ways in which that racism was literally given the power of the government and courts of Canada are at the very least similar. If we can be permitted to ‘zoom out’ our lens and see how overt and intentional policies of white supremacy were written into law, we can begin to understand some of the structural reasons why ‘the Canadian experience’ has such a racially divergent face.
The book itself is divided into six court cases. Rather than try to create an encyclopedic look at racism within the justice system (I’ll let you chew over that contradiction in terms on your own time), Backhouse has taken six ‘type cases’ as expository of a legacy of racist legal decision-making. In so doing, she invites us to imagine the extent to which other racialized people might have been discriminated against in interactions with various levels of law and government.
I have two subordinate theses that I would like to explore this month as well. The first is that the experience of racism in Canada is only different from that in the United States with regard to the specifics of the institution of slavery. In other words, Canada is guilty of every American sin except for those particularly resulting from slavery itself (and even then perhaps not entirely dissimilar). The second thesis, which sort of underpins the main argument, is that racism looks very similar regardless of which group you are in – that anti-black racism and anti-Native racism are not meaningfully different. I will, wherever possible, explore both of these sub-theses over the course of the next four weeks.
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*Indeed, a valid criticism of my approach is that, by framing black history as the history of racism, I am actually making ‘black history’ about white people. I will go into some discussion of this in a separate post.