The Sunday Magazine

Michael's essay: It's willful blindness to think Canadians aren't racist

"When we look south, we all too often take on a self-righteous attitude that what is happening to black people in the U.S. could not happen here."
Duane Christian was 15-years-old when he was shot and killed by Toronto police in 2006. A CBC News analysis has found that black people are far more likely to be killed by police in the city than other racial groups. (Simone Wellington)

This week the world marked the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on a balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis.

There were memorial concerts, religious services, thundering speeches and sermons.

As the tributes rolled out, people wondered how Dr. King would perceive the state of black people in the United States fifty years on.

There was general agreement that however far black people have come, however much their lives might have improved since 1968, racism still pollutes American society.

Most scientists now agree that race is a social construct, biologically meaningless.

The science notwithstanding, race lives on in our psyches as a cultural concept. 

Nobody is born a racist. They have to be taught. They have to be trained. By parents, by peers and sadly sometimes by media which emphasize race in crime reporting.

When we look south, we all too often take on a self-righteous attitude that what is happening to black people in the U.S. could not happen here.

In a startling coincidence, as we thought about the murder of Dr. King, some disturbing data — unearthed by CBC News — describe a different narrative.

A team of CBC investigators and researchers spent six months looking at every police-involved fatality since 2000, some 461 in all.

More than 70 per cent of the victims had mental health or substance abuse problems. Most were white.

But the numbers referring to blacks in Canada should make us all stop and rethink our attitudes toward race.

There are roughly 800,000 people in this country who self-identify as black. Roughly half live in the Greater Toronto Area.

Between the years 2000 and 2017, 19 blacks died after encounters with police. That's 36.5 per cent of the fatalities, even though black people make up only 8.3 per cent of the population.

And surveys have shown that about 80 per cent of black males between the ages of 25 and 44 have at one time or another been stopped and questioned by police in public.

This is not to suggest for a moment that all cops are racists. But it raises important questions, not only about police departments but about many of our vital institutions.

I've never liked the phrase systemic racism. To my mind, the very idea of systemic racism lets individual racists off the hook; "I'm not a racist, it's the system." But now I'm not so sure.

But I do know it is an act of willful blindness to assume that Canada has in some miraculous way escaped the scourge of racism.

Minister of Canadian Heritage Melanie Joly will oversee consultations on a national anti-racism strategy promised in February's budget. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

The federal government has announced plans for a pan-Canadian public consultation on the matter of racism, focusing specifically on systemic racism.

The hope is that out of the cross-country survey will come some kind of national strategy to combat racism.

If something concrete comes out about how minorities, whether black, Muslim, or Indigenous, are treated in this country, it will be worth the effort. 

Click 'listen' above to hear the essay.