Nova Scotia·Q&A

Why Desmond Cole says empathy isn't enough to eradicate anti-black racism

Author and activist Desmond Cole spoke with CBC's Information Morning after the launch of his new book in Halifax.

His new book 'The Skin We're In' launched at the University of King's College on Thursday

Desmond Cole is an activist and journalist who was in Halifax this week to launch his new book, which details racism in Canada. (Waubgeshig Rice/CBC)

Author and activist Desmond Cole says the arrest of a black woman who was shopping with her kids at a Halifax Walmart last month is more proof that it's time for a radical response to anti-black racism in this country.

In his new book, The Skin We're In: A Year of Black Resistance and Power, Cole argues it's not enough to reform police forces. He says police should be abolished.

Cole, who was in Halifax this week for the launch of the book, brought up Santina Rao's case during an interview with CBC's Information Morning on Friday.

"Abolishing the police is not about my dream or my fantasy, it's about protecting black and Indigenous people in these territories," said Cole, a former columnist with the Toronto Star who has written about his experience being repeatedly carded by police in that city. 

His book explores anti-black racism and police violence during one year, 2017, and draws in examples from Nova Scotia, including the deportation of former child refugee, Abdoul Abdi.

His conversation with Information Morning host Portia Clark has been edited for clarity and length. 

Why did you want to look at one year specifically and incidents during 2017?

We can learn a lot from just one year. Sometimes I think we get overwhelmed by all of the news, overwhelmed even by so much history that we have to learn and I thought, let me just condense it down into one year and look at issues in the child welfare system, look at the immigration system, look at experiences with the police and try to say that this could be any year in Canadian history. But we have so much to learn from the focus on just one.

You launched the book last night at the University of King's College, which has recently delved into its connections with slavery. What do you think of the power, and maybe the limits of that kind of institutional investigation, as far as making progress against racism and systemic racism?

I think it's important to do the work of learning about our history, and I think that institutions should all be doing this. They should all be delving into their past to understand where did the money from this institution come from? How are these buildings built? In so many cases in our history in this part of the country especially, the enslavement of African people is deeply tied to people's wealth that they were able to generate and these empires that they were able to build. 

So I think it's really important to know that history, but it's not enough, right? Because the history has an ongoing effect on what happens to us today … And just pledging to try and do better now is not enough. Reparations for me is like the idea of reconciliation that Indigenous people talk about. It's not one act. It's not a sum of money. It's not even just one apology. It's an ongoing commitment to improving the lives of black people given our history.

Are we making progress?

No we aren't. 

And people are desperate to hear that we are, and people are also angry that when black people are asked that question that we don't say, 'Oh yeah well we're not in chains anymore so things are better.' If there's such a small black population in this country, why are so many of us in jail? Why are so many of us being apprehended? Child apprehensions in black communities in Toronto are going up. We are almost 40 per cent of the new child welfare cases. That wasn't the case a generation ago. Why is that happening? 

Not everything is on this natural, as people believe, upward trajectory toward everybody being great and equal. And I think that that really bothers people because they think, I don't have to work for it. I just have to live off the avails and the fumes of being a Canadian, and if time passes things will automatically get better. Not if we don't fight for it.

You say empathy isn't enough. It does feel though like more people want this change. People are trying to be allies and get educated. How important is racism and anti-black racism to Canadians who aren't directly affected in your view?

Until all of us are free, none of us are. So when there are people in your community who are suffering, that is also your suffering. If there are people in your community who are afraid to call out for help when they need it because they don't think that the help is going to come, that affects the health and safety of the entire community. When some people live in fear it makes other people live in fear. 

Cole's new book, "The Skin We're In," was released last month. (Doubleday Canada, Martin Trainor/CBC)

So anti-black racism might not affect everybody in this province directly. It might not affect everybody in the country directly, but it creates a set of circumstances where our well-being is tied to one another. And so I wrote this book primarily for black people first and foremost to see ourselves and to see our stories, but justice is a collective enterprise. It's for everybody.

You talk about maybe getting rid of police, which I can't imagine will happen. What would you say is the next best step to improving police relations with all of our citizens, but particularly those who are from marginalized communities?

I'm done trying to negotiate my health and safety with the police. I do think we need to abolish the police. And when I say abolish the police, what I mean is when there's a person on the street having a mental health crisis, instead of calling the police we would have a team of people who are trained to de-escalate, who are trained to provide health care and support. And the money we spend on people with guns and batons coming to a health crisis would be deferred toward actually improving people's health. 

I don't mean that when there's a crisis, there's no one to call.

Look what happened to Santina Rao in Walmart, and Santina Rao received criminal charges against her after police and Walmart broke her wrist and gave her a concussion. How many more times will black people be asked to negotiate with people who treat us like that? And it's now Santina who's at criminal jeopardy instead of the police who attacked her.  Abolishing the police is not about my dream or my fantasy, it's about protecting black and Indigenous people in these territories.

You're also critical in the book of the media and its coverage of issues involving racism. What do you think needs to change?

I do see reporting on these issues, but it's always treated like it's new. Our media is failing to make the important connections that really shows us that racism is systemic. Every time it's like well that was a one off or let's wait and see what happens or we don't know what this means. And I think it's our media's responsibility to be able to connect these things and to start from a place of knowing our history of anti-blackness and white supremacy in this country, rather than acting surprised.

And it was a great privilege for me to have the space in a book to not have to say racism: true or false? But just to tell our stories as we know they occur.


With files from CBC's Information Morning