Archive for category race
I harp quite a bit on our comfortable Canadian myth that Canada doesn’t have a race problem. While I disagree with it in principle, in practice it is true provided you are grading on a curve. Canada doesn’t have nearly the same problem with racism that places like South Africa, South America, or even many places in Europe do. Canada’s history is one of comparative tolerance… aside from the initial displacement and subsequent repeated betrayals of its indigenous peoples… and the internment of Japanese citizens during the second world war… and the treatment of black settlers in the Maritimes… okay this is distracting me from my point.
Our many failures aside, Canada does not have the same history of deeply-entrenched racial animosity and open hatred that our neighbour to the south does. Well we do, but ours is less apparent/violent. Because of our non-identical histories in this regard, we have often compared ourselves favourably to Americans. The open question, one that may never be adequately answered, is the size of that difference. With large sociological and demographic differences between our countries, and due to the diffuse nature of the variable of interest (how do you quantify how racist someone is?), it’s a question that may be beyond our capacity to answer scientifically.
However, thanks to the short-sightedness of our federal government, we may have a shot at estimating a facet of it:
More per capita marijuana arrests are made in [Washington DC] than in any other jurisdiction in the country, according to a recent analysis of MPD and FBI data by Shenandoah University criminal justice professor Jon Gettman, the former director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. Pot arrests have been rising steadily every year since at least 2003, mirroring a national trend that began in the 1990s. And they didn’t really work. “We doubled marijuana arrests and it had no effect on the number of users,” Gettman says.
But even with a high arrest rate, some people in D.C. can probably safely get high without worrying that the cops are coming. Those people are white people. In 2007, 91 percent of those arrested for marijuana were black. In a city whose population demographics are steadily evening out, that’s odd. In fact, adjusting for population, African Americans are eight times as likely to be arrested for weed as white smokers are.
If that graph doesn’t shock you, then you’re either completely heartless, or just as cynical as I am. While the rates of consumption of marijuana are roughly equal*, the arrest rate is tipped grotesquely in favour of arresting black people for marijuana possession. Now I can (and often do) speculate about the more indirect or obscure methods by which racism manifests itself, but this one is pretty clear cut: police officers are stopping and searching black people more often than they are white people. The idea of black pot smokers is more apparent in the minds of police than the contrasting idea of good, honest white folks being druggies. As a result, it becomes far more commonplace to look for drugs when stopping black District residents than white ones.
I was once invited to go to Washington, D.C. for a vacation. I politely declined, pointing out that statistics like this are why, despite my love of history and politics, Washington D.C. stands forever on my list of places that I will not visit unless I have to. Of course, most of the U.S. is like that for me, so perhaps that isn’t a big deal. Stephen Colbert once accurate described the city as “the chocolate city with a marshmallow center” – a tiny nucleus of white residents surrounded by a vast sea of unrepresented and underserved black residents. A place like that would render me incapable of functioning.
However, this does point the way to an interesting natural experiment. Now that the Republican North Party has announced its intention to pass a wildly unpopular and ineffective anti-crime bill that includes mandatory minimums for possession of marijuana, we can draw some comparisons. A few years back there was a great to-do about racial profiling in Toronto police. Many hands were wrung and pearls clutched over the fact that we, too, might be racist. With the introduction of mandatory minimums for possession, we can draw some direct comparisons between criminal justice in the United States and in Canada – are charges dropped less frequently against whites compared to blacks? Are black people stopped and searched more often, leading to a disproportionate level of sentencing? Do arrests break down by postal code?
Now it must be said that having this one statistic will not give us a measure of racism across the board. Obviously Canada has a very different rural/urban mix than the U.S. does, and segregated communities are something of a foreign concept to us, with perhaps the exception of certain suburbs. Our demographic makeup is also quite different in terms of ethnic groups, both in terms of size and in terms of sheer numbers. That being said, it will allow us to scrutinize the way we practice law enforcement, and point to areas that need our concerted attention. It is to our detriment to have one segment of our population disproportionately represented in the prison system, since it prolongs the effects of wealth and access/achievement disparities to make them into trans-generational problems.
While I don’t think it’s a good thing that we’re heading backwards in terms of crime, or that racial profiling is a tool used by law enforcement, this new bill may provide us a unique opportunity to measure the effects of both. Hopefully only for a little while, when the next government scraps the stupid legislation and spends our money on something useful. Like ponies.
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*I am sure that some pedant will whinge about the self-report nature of the scale. The absolute size of the pot-smoking population is irrelevant. You would have to provide some pretty overwhelming evidence to get me to believe that black people are 8 times as likely to lie about smoking weed than white people, which is what that nitpick implies.
Yesterday there were a bunch of stories that, each on their own, would have made for excellent blog posts. However, in the interest of not deleting them because of insufficient time to address them in depth, I presented them all to you with a brief comment. The week has not gotten any longer, nor my schedule any freer, so I am going to do the same this afternoon, this time about race stuff:
Campus Republicans at the University of California Berkeley have cooked up a storm of controversy with their plans for a bake sale. But it’s not your everyday collegiate fundraiser they’ve got in mind. They’ve developed a sliding scale where the price of the cookie or brownie depends on your gender and the color of your skin. During the sale, scheduled for Tuesday, baked goods will be sold to white men for $2.00, Asian men for $1.50, Latino men for $1.00, black men for $0.75 and Native American men for $0.25. All women will get $0.25 off those prices.
“The pricing structure is there to bring attention, to cause people to get a little upset,” Campus Republican President Shawn Lewis, who planned the event, told CNN-affiliate KGO. “But it’s really there to cause people to think more critically about what this kind of policy would do in university admissions.”
Not being able to do this story full justice pains me, because nobody is more deserving of being torn a new asshole on the internet than Shawn Lewis right now. First of all, this isn’t an original idea – these kinds of bake sales happen all the damn time. But, because people are morons, they don’t bother to adapt their approach or their argument when it has been thoroughly skewered. Many people have been bringing up the idea that people should just round up a bunch of Native American women, take all the baked goods, and then sell them at a profit. That would, perhaps, better approximate the history of racial ‘fairness’ in the United States (albeit in reverse). Stunts like this, which are inaccurately named ‘satire’, serve to illustrate how lopsided the treatment of different racial groups has been throughout the history of the Americas, and how certain people simply refuse to get it.
The NHL called it “stupid and ignorant.” Flyers winger Wayne Simmonds said he was “above this sort of stuff.” A banana came out of the stands in London, Ont., on Thursday night as Simmonds was skating towards Detroit goalie Jordan Pearce in a pre-season shootout. Simmonds is black.
This is the thing about racists: they’re just so funny! Hahaha! A banana! Get it? He’s black! Black people are like apes! Apes like bananas! HAHAHA!
The sigh-inducing aspect of this story is the number of people who took to the internet to defend the guy who threw the banana. “What if he was just planning on eating it, but then got angry and threw it?” Not only would it be a staggering coincidence that someone brought in a whole shit-ton of bananas to a hockey game and just happened to have one left right at the end of the game (through overtime, no less) when the only black person on the ice was taking a solo penalty shot, but who the fuck brings fruit to a hockey game? What is this guy, some kind of health nut with an anger-management problem and an ironic sense of timing?
On a positive note, it is being condemned by pretty much everyone in clear, unequivocal terms, and hasn’t seemed to
phase faze Simmonds much [seriously, Crommunist? What the fuck, dude? - props to Beauxeau]. Also, he scored the goal, and Philadelphia won the game 4-3.
The controversial new executive director of the Africville Heritage Trust is out of the job already. Carole Nixon has stopped working for the organization, but trust chairwoman Daurene Lewis wouldn’t say Wednesday if Nixon had been fired. ”She’s no longer with the organization, and this is a personnel matter and any speculation (on that) would have to remain confidential,” Lewis said in an interview.
Regular readers will remember this story from last week. Carole Nixon was appointed the director of the Africville Trust in Halifax. One of the issues swirling around the appointment is that while the story of Africville is essentially the generations-long oppression of a black minority by an unforgiving white majority, Carole Nixon is a white woman. It is an interesting story where compelling arguments can be made on both sides: can an outsider truly represent the values of a community, particularly this one? Is it right to restrict jobs to only those of the ‘correct’ race or nationality?
All that discussion has been rendered hypothetical by this dismissal, which may not be for the reason you suspect:
Newspaper clippings from the St. Catharines Standard in Ontario outlined Nixon’s departure from four jobs, including her firing as executive director of the Burlington (Ont.) Downtown Business Improvement Association in 1989 and the City of Toronto’s employees association in 1995. In 2000, the Standard reported, she abruptly stepped down as executive director of the St. Catharines Downtown Association, and in 2002, she was reportedly fired as development director in Watertown, N.Y.
This one’s going to court, I’d imagine.
If someone wants to pay me to do this full-time, I will be able to devote the requisite amount of attention to each of these stories and more that cross my desktop. Until such time, you’ll just have to make do with these brief summaries and my sincere apologies.
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Being a liberal is often associated, rightly or wrongly, with smugness or an air of superiority. For example, oftentimes this ‘superiority’ is the product of a comprehensive education in the humanities and sciences (dare I say a ‘liberal arts’ education)? When someone makes a reductive claim – attributing outcome A solely to input B – liberals often point out that there are causes C-Z to consider as well. What the reductive claim-maker hears is “you’re stupid and I’m better than you because you didn’t know that”. It is no accident that the forces of anti-intellectualism line up almost exclusively on the right.
But beyond the explanations for why there are reasons why liberals might be seen as arrogant when in fact we aren’t, there certainly does exist some legitimate arrogance that comes from the same source as conservative arrogance, or the sense of superiority manifesting itself in any group. When one associates with only those (or primarily those) that share your group monicker, one begins to believe one’s own propaganda. Tea Party groups really do believe, for example, that they are true patriots who only want government off their backs – that’s because they don’t read the polls that reveal them to simply be the new face of the religious right. Religious groups really do believe, as another example, that theirs is the ‘true’ interpretation of the holy books – that’s because they don’t recognize that their ‘proofs’ of their deity are the same as those of a competing group.
With liberals, the most vexing of these myths is the one about racism being ‘their’ problem. Namely, that being liberal makes you vouchsafed from racist thoughts or ideas. I can understand where this myth comes from. Conservatism, particularly when it comes to immigration and civil rights, is always on the side of the status quo – hence the name. Because an argument against allowing immigrants (which is often an argument against allowing certain immigrants) access to citizenship always carries with it the stench of anti-brown bigotry, those on the conservative side end up holding the bag for racism and xenophobia. The same goes for civil rights and access – it was conservatives opposing the Civil Rights Act, it was (and is) conservatives opposing lesbian/gay marriage rights, which leaves them tagged with repeated instances of bigotry.
Because liberals have been on the other side of these fights (by and large), liberals have become comfortable with the assumption that adopting this political stance is impervious armour against accusations of thoughtcrime. Indeed, when having drinks with a colleague and discussing politics, he made some offhand remark about how as liberals, we had to overcome racism from the right. He was visibly first confused, then alarmed when I suggested to him that, in fact, liberals are racist too. It might not look the same as conservative racism, but it still has the same effect.
It was with these thoughts in the back of my mind that I read this piece in The Nation:
Electoral racism in its most naked, egregious and aggressive form is the unwillingness of white Americans to vote for a black candidate regardless of the candidate’s qualifications, ideology or party. This form of racism was a standard feature of American politics for much of the twentieth century. So far, Barack Obama has been involved in two elections that suggest that such racism is no longer operative. His re-election bid, however, may indicate that a more insidious form of racism has come to replace it.
In it, Dr. Harris-Perry (who I follow on Twitter) lays out an argument for why white voters, who supported Barack Obama in the first election, may be abandoning him now at a greater rate than they did President Clinton in the 90′s – despite the many political and situational similarities between the two. Given that so many of the ostensible reasons for withdrawing support are balanced between the two administrations, racism may explain, at least in part, any differences in voter support and approval. It’s hard to argue that race and racism have not played a role in this particular presidency far more than in others.
Because I liked both this article and a related one that more closely explored the racial attitudes of Bill Clinton more specifically and liberals more generally, I fired a quick message to Dr. Harris-Perry in support, because I knew that she was taking quite a bit of flack for her audacious temerity to suggest that liberals weren’t the immaculate paragons of fairness that we make ourselves out to be. Basically, just a “hey, I liked your piece in the Nation.” Didn’t even get a reply. No biggie.
It was a few short hours before a friend of mine sent me a seemingly-indignant message, asking me to defend my support for Harris-Perry’s article. She/he had procured statistics suggesting that all presidents lose favourability in their first terms (which the article doesn’t dispute), and that she/he saw more differences between the two presidencies than the article had pointed out. When I replied, briefly, that the article was more about the attitude I have described above, she/he challenged me to provide data demonstrating the racism at play. It was at this point that I simply gave up, as I wasn’t really interested in defending someone else’s work while trying to eat my dinner, and the article in question talked about the next election, not the current polling.
This exchange wouldn’t be unusual, except that I happen to know that this person is a regular reader. I say all kinds of unsubstantiated shit on these pages pretty much every day. While I do my best, I don’t always provide full citations for my conclusions or speculations, leaving it up to the reader to dispute them. Most of the time, this particular friend chooses not to dispute, even when I am talking about racial topics. However, this particular statement – a throwaway line of congratulations in a Tweet – stuck in her/his craw long enough that she/he went stats hunting.
So in the same way that Harris-Perry has done, I am openly speculating here that this kind of “prove it” attitude from liberals who spontaneously become skeptical whenever they have a dog in the fight (which, by the way, Harris-Perry wrote another piece about), comes at least in part from the cognitive dissonance at play when they are accused of racism. “I couldn’t possibly be racist,” they say, as though being liberal means you were raised on a different planet. We are all products of the same system. If someone points out that a behaviour has racial connotations, instead of reflexively reaching for counterexamples, perhaps take the time to consider the possibility, and engage in the argument that person is making, rather than the one you hear through your rage.
I will close with Dr. Harris-Perry’s words:
Racism is not the the sole domain of Republicans, Conservatives or Southerners. Not all racists pepper their conversation with the N-word or secretly desire the extermination of black and brown people. Racism is complex, multi-layered, and deeply rooted in the American story. Name calling is not helpful in uprooting racism, but neither is a false sense of moral superiority.
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In light of this morning’s post, I’d like to say a few words (not too many, I promise) about the execution of Troy Davis. For those of you unfamiliar with the case, Mr. Davis was convicted of killing a police officer in 1989 in Savannah, Georgia. The case against Mr. Davis was built on the eyewitness testimony of people who claimed to be there to see the shooting. In the intervening 12 years, 9 of those witnesses have recanted their statements, with some alleging coercion by police. New forensic evidence has been brought forward suggesting that Mr. Davis is not, in fact the shooter. None of that has swayed the appellate courts, who allowed Mr. Davis’ execution to go forward yesterday.
This is a dramatically different situation than the one highlighted this morning, since there are evidently legitimate questions regarding Mr. Davis’ innocence:
A U.S. parole board has denied clemency to Troy Davis, clearing the way for his execution Wednesday in a case that has become an international cause celebre for death penalty opponents. Davis was convicted of shooting dead an off-duty police officer who intervened in a brawl in a parking lot in Savannah, Georgia in 1989, but there was no physical evidence and several witnesses later recanted their testimony.
The thread connecting these two cases, however, is race. Mr. Davis, like Mr. Buck, is a black man. Now, in this case race was not so overtly a factor in the decision to convict or recommend the death penalty. That being said, my point in this morning’s piece is that it doesn’t have to be overt to exert influence. Mr. Davis’ race was a factor in his arrest, in his treatment following his arrest, his prosecution, and his sentencing. While I do not have the resources to demonstrate it, there is often a position of presupposed guilt when a defendant is black, while white defendants enjoy more of the benefit of the doubt.
Greg Laden over at The X Blog illustrates this aptly:
It is especially poignant to see that two young white middle class Americans will be release from an Iranian jail about the same time Troy will take the needle. Not that Shane Bauer and Joshua Fattal should not be release or that they have anything to do with it. It is poignant for another reason. If you were an Iranian government official looking at the Shane Bauer and Joshua Fattal case, the assumption that these to guys are spies would be natural. As a person who has traveled a fair amount in or near bellicose regions, and actually met spies along the way (I even spent a bit of time in prison with a spy in the Eastern Congo) I was never closed to the idea, while in the mean time virtually every American hearing of their fate simply knew that the were innocent of these charges. Young American men hiking on the border of a hostile state could not possibly be spies! Meanwhile, in downtown Savannah Georgia, if the police pick up a young black male for some crime or another, there are a lot of people who will assume he is guilty. Or, worse, not care if he is guilty. It’s the inner city. Young black males are the criminals. A crime was committed. Close enough.
But even with the race question left on its own, there seems to be more than enough reasonable doubt in this case to justify staying execution indefinitely. Troy Davis was convicted without any physical evidence linking him to the crime, and police bullied and intimidated their way into securing a quick conviction. When police wring their hands about how people who live in high-crime areas don’t co-operate with law enforcement, they need to understand that this is why. Police are not there unless they are looking to arrest someone, and are happy (dare I say eager) to run roughshod over the civil and human rights of the people in those communities to make as many charges stick as they can. Never mind justice, never mind professional diligence, and never mind protect and serve.
More bizarrely, the justice system, which is ostensibly supposed to correct for the grotesqueries of police overreaching, seems to be playing right along:
A Georgia appeals panel refused to let Troy Davis take a lie detector test to prove his innocence Wednesday, as the American convicted of killing a policeman nears exhaustion of his legal options hours before his execution. ”He requested an opportunity to take a polygraph test yesterday from the Board of Pardons and Paroles, which had previously denied clemency,” Davis’s attorney Brian Kammer told AFP. ”Mr Davis’s attorneys had a polygrapher at the prison this morning in the event the request was granted. However, earlier this morning, the Department of Corrections and the Board of Pardons and Paroles flatly denied the request,” Kammer said.
The courts seem to be saying “you’re guilty, Mr. Davis, and we will not let any facts get in the way of that story.” Such is the reality for many people convicted by our courts.
This is why my eyes glaze over and my fists clench whenever people talk about the liberal ‘hug a thug’ mentality (a phrase so mind-numbingly stupid, and a position that obviously had so little thought go into it, that it makes me wonder whether the speaker has difficulty not choking on her own tongue). Justice should be difficult. Justice should be fought for and won only after a campaign of diligence and careful weighing of evidence. The decision to imprison someone, much less execute her, is one that deserves more care and deliberation, not snaps to judgment made for the sake of convenience.
Stories like this make me tired. I’m going to need an otter:
Not enough. Gonna need a double shot:
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Yesterday I mentioned that I don’t have a specific goal for these writings. Mostly they are a signpost for me to be able to look back and see how my thought process is evolving over time, much like writing one’s self a letter to be read in the future. That being said, people are reading this stuff (and thank you for that, by the way). This means that my ideas must stand up to third-party scrutiny in a way they wouldn’t have to if they were just my random, private thoughts. One of the more contentious ideas I have is my operational definition of racism. I fully recognize that the way I use the word – to describe the attribution of ethnic group characteristics to individuals – is subtly different from what most people think when they use the word. My position remains that my definition is superior because it adequately encompasses the ‘classic’ definition, whilst also describing the reality of contemporary ‘polite’ racism.
However, there are occasions where I can go beyond simple rhetorical demonstration and actually bring evidence to bear on why we must shift our understanding of what racism is:
A Texas inmate sentenced to death—in a racially charged case that now-Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said was inappropriately decided—has petitioned Gov. Rick Perry and his state parole board for clemency, giving the GOP presidential candidate two days to decide whether to commute the sentence or grant a temporary stay of execution. Last week, one of the Harris County prosecutors who helped secure Buck’s conviction wrote a letter to Perry urging him to grant a retrial.
Some quick housecleaning here:
- I am not calling Rick Perry racist. I don’t know anything about the man’s personal beliefs when it comes to issues of race, or his track record of treatment of visible minorities. Even if Perry were an open and notorious member of the KKK, it would be completely irrelevant to my argument.
- I am also not interested in debating capital punishment at this time. I am personally against it, and have found all arguments in favour of executing convicts to be lacking in validity. That being said, my personal stance on the ethics or pragmatics of capital punishment are entirely tangential to the issue at hand.
- I am also not trying to make the argument that Duane Buck, the inmate in question, is innocent and should be freed. By all accounts, he’s guilty and his conviction is a good one. Again, this has nothing to do with the point I wish to make here.
The point I wish to make lives in these lines:
The issue at hand isn’t Buck’s innocence, but the means by which his death sentence was obtained. Prosecutors firmly established Buck’s guilt, but to secure a capital punishment conviction in Texas they needed to prove “future dangerousness”—that is, provide compelling evidence that Buck posed a serious threat to society if he were ever to walk free. They did so in part with the testimony of a psychologist, Dr. Walter Quijano, who testified that Buck’s race (he’s African American) made him more likely to commit crimes in the future.
This is about as stark an example of racism as one could ask for. If Duane Buck had been white, he would have received a sentence of life in prison rather than execution. The psychologist testifying against him made it a matter of science (or at least clinical opinion) that black people are inherently more dangerous, and more likely to reoffend. This declaration pushed the jury to decide against him when deciding sentencing. One can certainly fault Dr. Quijano for abdicating his ethical responsibilities both as a medical practitioner and as a human being by offering racist claptrap as sworn testimony – there’s your classical racism. However, and this is significant – the jury believed him.
Imagine sitting in a juror’s box and having to decide on a land dispute between two neighbours. A shaman is called to testify, and offers his expert testimony that when he consulted the entrails of sacred chickens, they clearly indicated that the border between the two properties should be redrawn so that Mr. Ortiz can expand his garage as planned. When considering the evidence, would you include the shaman’s remarks, or rightly dismiss them as complete nonsense? Because you’re a reasonable person who knows that one cannot derive municipal zoning law from the gastrointestinal tract of domesticated animals, you’d probably ignore the insane ‘evidence’ offered in the courtroom.
That’s not the case in Texas. In Texas, the idea that black people are simply more dangerous – that black skin and heritage is meaningful when trying to predict someone’s behaviour – is something that carries enough traction to carry the force of law. The fact that the jurors weren’t able to immediately dismiss Dr. Quijano’s arguments as meritless means that somewhere in their minds, the predictive power of race on behaviour is a real possibility. This doesn’t mean that they were necessary maliciously racist people, or that they were even consciously aware of the effect that their own nascent racism had on their decision-making processes. What it does mean, however, is that without a fuller understanding of what racism is and how it operates, legal decisions such as the one Mr. Buck is facing are a reality, and will continue to be in the future.
Luckily, for Mr. Buck anyway, the controversy surrounding the sentencing has led to a temporary stay of execution:
The U.S. Supreme Court halted the execution Thursday of a black man convicted of a double murder in Texas 16 years ago after his lawyers contended his sentence was unfair because of a question asked about race during his trial. Duane Buck, 48, was spared from lethal injection when the justices, without extensive comment, said they would review an appeal in his case. Two appeals, both related to a psychologist’s testimony that black people were more likely to commit violence, were before the court. One was granted; the other was denied.
But this brings to light a whole new series of questions. Suppose that, under Texas law, Duane Buck should be executed. Suppose that, without Dr. Quijano’s testimony, the decision would have gone the same way. It is entirely possible that a guilty person is being excused because of complication surrounding the way the justice system handled his race. It’s happened before. Justice has not been served, and it is because of our preoccupation with race, coupled with our seeming inability to chart the way forward when it comes to resolving what is evidently still an open and relevant question.
Racism is not a problem that our parents or grandparents had to contend with, and that we can consign to the annals of history. Racism is very much alive, and failing to understand it will continue to be a millstone around our collective necks for as long as it takes us to get serious in our discussion of it.
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I don’t have a ‘goal’ for this blog per se. Based on feedback I occasionally get from readers I am introducing anti-racist concepts and vernacular to an audience that hadn’t encountered them much before – that’s a bonus for me. I am reasonably sure I haven’t deconverted anyone to atheism… yet. While I am unashamedly putting my ideas out there for public consumption, I don’t hold any pretense of trying to change the world or start a revolution. I’m just a guy with ideas, and some people seem to find them interesting, which makes me happy.
That being said, I am not above occasionally goosing my fellow Canadians and reminding them that while things are undoubtedly bad in other countries, we have our fair share of problems here too.
Some members of Nova Scotia’s black community say they are outraged that a white person has been hired as executive director of the Africville Heritage Trust and are calling for her resignation. “I find it insulting to all black people,” said Burnley (Rocky) Jones, a local lawyer and well-known human rights activist. “Surely we, within our community, have many people fully qualified to do such a job.” (snip) The trust’s board of directors, which includes six representatives of the Africville community, recently hired Carole Nixon, a white Anglican minister, for the position.
I’ll admit that even someone as outspoken and uncompromising as me had a really tough time coming down on one side of this issue. For those of you who weren’t here in February and aren’t familiar with Africville, I wrote about it during my Black History Month review of Canadian Black History. In brief, Africville was an area of Halifax that was systematically underserved and discriminated against by the citizenry of the city at large because it was inhabited primarily by black people. It was eventually bulldozed, leaving its residents largely homeless.
To head up the museum dedicated to the preservation and exploration of the history of this monument to Canadian exploitation and hatred of the white populace against black citizens, the selection committee chose a white woman. Obviously they made their selection based on her qualifications – Ms. Nixon has a certificate in black history from UofT (although I have no idea what that means). At the same time, she is not a member of the community and has no ties to its history. Beyond the simple poor optics of the choice, Ms. Nixon represents, to many of the community members, the same forces that were responsible for the debacle of Africville.
A frosh event at a Montreal university has come under scrutiny after students painted themselves in blackface. Students at the University of Montreal’s business school dressed up as Jamaican sprinters, with black paint covering their skin, for the event Wednesday.
Meh, so what? So a couple of frosh dressed up as Jamaican sprinters, and in order to lend their costumes a bit more realism, they ‘blacked up’ (despite the fact that there are lots of white Jamaicans). Where’s the harm, right?
One witness, who is of Jamaican descent, said he felt uncomfortable and was shocked to hear some students chanting, “Smoke more weed.” “They had reduced all of who I am and the history of Jamaica and culture of Jamaica to these negative connotations of weed smoking, black skin, rastas,” said McGill law student Anthony Morgan, who happened to be on the campus at the time and filmed the group.
This is something that needs to be repeated regularly, it seems – it is never okay to dress in blackface. Not ever. It doesn’t matter if you think you’re being complimentary or paying homage. It doesn’t matter if you’re spoofing a movie or a television show, or a fictional character. It doesn’t matter if you get assigned “dress like an African” as some kind of bizarre theme exercise. It doesn’t matter how funny or clever you think it is, nor does it matter if you don’t mean it “that way”. The history of blackface, coupled with the way black people are portrayed in contemporary media, means that blackface is just one of those things it’s not okay to do.
It’s certainly not okay when your goal is to mock a culture that you clearly know nothing about as part of a frosh week prank, at a school where black students are underrepresented, in a province that has a major race problem. You would think that this kind of thing wouldn’t need to be explained, but of course that’s the great part about white privilege – you don’t ever have to think before you do stuff like this. All you have to do is claim afterward that you didn’t mean anything by it, and maybe everyone should just lighten up.
Imagine you were inspired and impressed by Canada’s aboriginal history and culture. Imagine you had a world stage with which to express your admiration, and try in your own small way to heal wounds left by generations of exploitation and oppression. Would you do perhaps just a little bit of research to make sure you’re accurately portraying the people whose culture you are paying homage to? Maybe spend some time understanding the history behind the culture, and how it affects aboriginal people today? Would you maybe try to participate in or discuss the cultural practices of the particular band/bands you were emulating?
Or would you just reach for the first handful of cheap stereotypes from a spaghetti western movie that popped into your head?
This may not come as a huge shock to you, but if you chose the first option(s) then you can congratulate yourself on being smarter and more insightful than Miss Universe Canada. Well, at least this year’s entrant. Seriously, considering the fact that the way we treat our First Nations people is the great shame of our nation, why on Earth would you think it a good idea to showcase our collective national insensitivity is beyond my limited capacity to understand.
Canada likes to pride itself on being a tolerant country that is open to people of many different ethnicities and walks of life. For the most part, I think we do a good job of that. However, we should never allow ourselves to grow complacent in our quest to model such tolerance. It is far too easy to slip into the easy errors of racism than it is to maintain a constant vigilance; failing to maintain that vigilance will ultimately be our downfall.
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One of the frustrating things about delving into the world of anti-racism is that you will inevitably run into someone who makes a completely unbalanced equivocation between the racism that people of colour (PoCs) encounter and the discomfort associated with race relations from the point of view of a white person. “I live in an all-black neighbourhood – I can’t even ride the bus without feeling people stare at me!” And while trying to be careful not to minimize their discomfort, some poor sap has to explain that when you get off that bus outside your neighbourhood, it is in every conceivable way better for you to be white person than the black people who make you feel like the ‘victim of reverse racism’.
Within the construct of North American racial relations, there are really very few examples of legitimate anti-white racism. If one comes from the perspective that racism is the product of prejudice and power – that is, that racism must have some real force behind it to be meaningful – then there are essentially none. I don’t personally subscribe to that definition, but it does have a lot of merit in specific contexts (I won’t go further than that for now. Maybe another time). Critics of anti-racism, therefore, conflate the approach with simply being “anti-white”, which is about as accurate as saying that feminism is anti-male (but of course there are many who think that as well).
Therefore I am, in a weird way, happy to present you with the following:
South Africa’s high court has ruled that the anti-apartheid song Shoot the Boer is hate speech and banned the ruling ANC from singing it. Afrikaans interest group Afriforum had complained about ANC youth league leader Julius Malema singing the song, which refers to white farmers. Mr Malema and other ANC leaders had argued that the song was a celebration of the fight against minority rule. They said the words were not meant to be taken literally.
Long-time readers of this blog will be familiar with my sometimes-fraught relationship with hate speech. While I am a proud progressive liberal, my stance on free speech is something of a digression from my fellows, who believe that speech inciting hatred can be and should be legally curtailed. My problem with hate speech controls comes from a variety of sources – first of all I am unconvinced that we can define and enforce a consistent standard of ‘hate’. Even if we could, there is incomplete evidence to suggest that hate speech restrictions reduce the amount of hatred in society, rather than simply shifting it underground (where it is arguably more dangerous).
That being said, I don’t think we should simply call all speech good simply because it exists. There is absolutely hate speech, and it is always deplorable. We should criticize ideas vigorously and unashamedly. We should treat the people who hold those ideas as our fellow human beings, with all the fundamental rights we would like for ourselves and those we love. As much as I am happy to criticize religious zealots, or racists, or climate change denialists, or any group that holds positions that I think are destructive, the moment that someone attempts to treat those people as anything other than humans deserving of respect I will take up a placard and demonstrate for their rights.
Not so for Mr. Malema. My attempts at prognostication are usually simple idle speculation, but having read a bit of his background, I think that when a man like Julius Malema gains real political power, it will be the dawn of a dangerous era for South Africa. While he may not harbour legitimate hatred of white people, he is not above fanning the flames of hatred in those that do, and who see their violent hatred reflected in his speech. While his calls to “shoot the Boer” are, to hear him say it, simply a nod toward the history of the ANC, they are also a very specific call for violence. At that point we have left the realm of political speech and entered into criminal territory.
The song can be heard here (although it won’t mean much to you if you don’t speak Afrikaans):
Whatever you think about the content, you’ve got to admit: it’s catchy.
Like any demagogue worth her/his salt, Malema has managed to frame this censure as an illegitimate organization trying to silence the voice of truth coming from the common man:
Mr Malema said he would push for reform to the court system, which he said had not changed since the apartheid era. “If not being transformed means it’s racist, then so be it,” said Mr Malema, youth leader of the African National Congress (ANC). “Once again we find ourselves subjected to white minority approval. Apartheid is being brought through the back door.” He said he wanted liberation songs to be protected by law. “These were the songs of resistance and they will never die,” he said.
I have no problem with preserving historical artifacts, even if they’re racist. I might go so far as to say we should be more protective of the distasteful parts of our history, since they are the ones we need to learn the most from. If the question was whether or not the song can be discussed and the court ruled that the song must be banned altogether, then Mr. Malema would have a valid point. However, what he is doing instead is using deep-seated racial tension to bolster support for his ridiculous and disastrous social and economic policies – a Southern Strategy for South Africa.
Removing for a moment the discussion of who can claim responsibility for the simmering racial resentment that seems to define the political reality for South Africa, it is trivially easy to highlight this as an example of legitimate anti-white racism. A political case is being built around the exclusion and, apparently, violent suppression of the white minority in South Africa. While there are a million issues to tease out from this story – how much of a minority white South Africans really are, for example – even an anti-racist like myself can point to this as a clear case of racist hate speech.
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As a member of the skeptic/freethinker community, I tend to associate with many people that share my views on things. I am somewhat spoiled by the fact that most people my age in Canada read from the same playbook, and have many of the same fundamental assumptions/conclusions about the world. It is therefore usually a pretty big shock when I meet someone who is a 9/11 truther or a climate change denialist or a hardcore libertarian making themselves known at a skeptic’s pub night or related event.
Many people use the term ‘skeptic’ to denote anyone who ‘opposes the status quo’ – saying that their conspiracy mongering over who really took down the World Trade Center towers is just them being ‘skeptical’. When organized skeptics talk about ‘skepticism’, they generally refer to methodological skepticism – a philosophy wherein all beliefs and truth claims are subjected to scrutiny and apportioned to the available evidence. While superficially those do seem to overlap, the problem with the positions I mention above is that they fail to doubt their own truth claims, instead relying on a combination of ideological rigidity and back-filling to “prove” their validity. As I’ve spelled out before, it is no good to decide something is true and then look for evidence – the human mind is capable of thus “proving” pretty much anything it likes.
Enter “racial realism”.
Regular readers may recall a number of months ago when I had a white supremacist show up in the comments section. It triggered a somewhat unusual and surprising reaction in me – one that I myself wasn’t really prepared for. That aside, while I stand by my characterization of that person as a de facto white supremacist, he would probably prefer the term “race realist”. Race realism is, generally, the position that observable racial groupings are biologically valid, and are so beyond simply superficial cosmetic traits. The video linked above was created by someone who describes herself in such terms.
It may surprise you (it certainly surprised me) to learn that there are many points of agreement between myself and the author. Insofar as race has a biological component, I am certainly happy to admit that genetic differences account for phenotypic differences. I will also agree with her assertion that many people (most often those on the political left) misuse the term ‘racist’, often in an attempt to introduce emotional weight to an argument, sometimes in lieu of actually refuting the claims made. I will finally agree with her closing statement that noticing racial differences is not, in and of itself, racist.
That is probably the beginning and the end of the places where the author and I would agree with each other. The rest of the video is (despite the catchy musical accompaniment) is utter nonsense. Her basic position is that because races are inherently different, that “noticing” racial differences is only natural. The problem with her position specifically, and racial realism generally, is twofold. First, the statement that racial differences account for the type and magnitude of differences in access/achievement seen between racial groups is unsupported by the scientific evidence, and fails to take into account the multitude of other demonstrated, observed factors.
Second, the video uses the word “noticing” in a profoundly different way than we would colloquially. When the author uses the word ‘noticing’, she means semantically what most of us would use the word ‘explaining’ for. Noticing that there are disparities between racial groups is, indeed, not a racist action. Explaining differences between groups by attributing them to something as demonstrably superficial as race certainly qualifies as racism – almost by definition.
I’m not going to spend too much longer on the myriad of reasons why I disagree with the author. Friend of the blog Will has done an unbelievably thorough job of skewering the specific claims about race that the author makes:
Ruka also demonstrates a complete lack of understanding of social constructivism. The fact that race is socially constructed does not mean it is not real. It means that it is not reducible to biological traits. Race is a very real idea and has real, tangible implications on peoples’ lives. So, of course racial hate crimes exist, but they are based on the way people define race (e.g., skin color), not based on biology. I will close with a typically anthropological discussion. The definition of “race” varies cross-culturally, across time, and across space. This fact is evidence for a social construction of race. An excellent example of this can be seen in the changes of the race category of the United States national census over the last two centuries and in comparing the American categories of race options to the race options on other countries’ censuses.
Tim Wise has similarly taken his quill to the position of racial realism, saying that even if it was true it would be morally inarguable:
In other words, in order to uphold the notion that people should be treated like the individuals they are — not merely as individuals in the abstract — considering the way that racial identity may have limited opportunities for job or college applicants (and thus, taking affirmative action to look more deeply at what goes into an applicant’s presumed and visible “merit”) would be morally requisite. And yet, making assumptions about individual IQ based on group averages, and then doling out the goodies accordingly would be morally repugnant. Both look at group identity, but for very different reasons, with very different levels of ethical justification, and with very different practical results.
I don’t think I could do a better job than they have of taking on this absurd position. My utter contempt for it is such that I am loath to run the risk of elevating it above the adolescent brain-fart it is. What I would like to do is offer some perspective on why I think the author, and those like her, should be particularly addressed by the skeptical community.
Smart vs. intelligent
Back in early 2009, I re-posted a brief essay I had written delineating the concepts of “smart”, “wise”, “intellectual” and “intelligent”. I have a tendency to redefine terms for my own purposes, and I wanted that page to serve as a reference in case I ran into someone who objected to my describing of something as ‘stupid’. Simply put, “intelligent” refers to one’s ability to adapt to novel situations, “wise” includes the application of previously-held knowledge, and “intellectual” refers to one’s willingness to process things cognitively and through the application of logical processes. “Smart” is the confluence of all three of these attributes, whereas ‘stupid’ is its polar opposite.
I have no doubt that Ruka, the author of the video above, is intelligent. I am sure that, in her own way, she is “intellectual”, except insofar as she ignores contradictory evidence and refuses to address the flaws in her position, preferring instead to bloviate about how mean everyone is to her when she’s ‘just asking questions’. None of her intelligence, however, protects her from being profoundly stupid. I cannot really speculate about whether she is intentionally introducing straw man arguments and red herrings into her position, but I can conclude that, intentional or not, her arguments are sloppy and borne of an unbelievably arrogant reliance on her own perception of her cognitive abilities.
This kind of unwarranted self-assurance is also what is at play in 9/11 truthers, climate skeptics, Holocaust deniers, and other non-methodological ‘skeptics’. While it is most often an unfair straw man characterization foisted upon us by our opponents, it is also occasionally true of those who call ourselves ‘freethinkers’. Skepticism, as I’ve mentioned variously in previous posts, is an ideal to be pursued; not a goal to be reached. The only reliable path to truth is to test our beliefs against observed evidence, and (more importantly) to change them when necessary. While this can be done without ridiculous hang-wringing and false modesty, one must always keep in the back of their mind the statement “what if I’m wrong? How could that be demonstrated?”
Failing to do this, or only pretending to do it, as Ruka does (she apparently blocks comments unless they agree with her or insult her – presumably so she can paint her opponents as lunatics as she does in the video I link above), will inevitably lead us into positions like hers, where our inherent beliefs about the world are ‘justified’ through a convoluted process of back-filling and denial.
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I live in Vancouver, which is a city that has a very large population of east and south Asian people. Having spent a number of years in Brampton, Ontario, and having done a degree at the University of Waterloo, I am more or less used to being in an environment with a large minority population. Some people, however, seem to have a difficult time dealing with the diversity, and retreat immediately into crude stereotypes when interacting with non-white people. If you think you might be one of those (and you are attracted to women), here’s a few handy tips:
Many people (mostly white people) express a great deal of incredulity when people of colour (PoCs) share stories like this. “How could anyone be so stupid?” they ask. Or, more commonly, “you’re exaggerating”. Life as a PoC in most cities in North America is emphatically not a non-stop barrage of racial insensitivity and adversity. However, it doesn’t take a lot of these kinds of comments to make you feel as though two things are overwhelmingly true:
- Your race/ethnic identity is the most important thing people see when they look at you
- You are the ‘other’ – a person who is tolerated but not part of the group
Now I don’t get hit on a lot (and when I am, most of the time I can’t hear the comments over the sound of me saying ‘yes’ and high-fiving myself), but it’s a pretty safe bet that when I’m flirting with someone who seems interested, at some point I will hear either “I just love black guys”, or “I’ve never been with a black guy before”. I’ve yet to hear “I’ve never been with a viola player before” or “health economists are so sexy” (and we really are – we’ve done extensive studies proving it through the use of computer simulation). It’s not a huge problem, but it’s just one of those things.
While it’s tough enough for women to walk down the street without being openly and unapologetically objectified by strangers, when you add race to that equation, life becomes even more difficult.
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We, as a civilization, had a long and dismal period that we call the ‘Dark Ages’. Generally speaking, this refers to a time when, for a variety of reasons, we had little by way of practical knowledge of the world and took a giant step backwards in terms of not only technology but of philosophy and thought as well. It took us hundreds of years to regain the ideas and developments that our historical predecessors had developed. In that intervening period, there was massive and widespread suffering among all classes of people, particularly the poor. What knowledge we had about medicine, climate, mechanics, and the the basic tools required to gain and test such knowledge was not available to the ‘common’ people, who through a combination of practical necessity and active oppression at the hands of those that didn’t think such people were ‘ready’ for scientific truths, were kept in the dark.
Through heroic courage and dedicated study, European civilization was able to pull itself out of its tailspin and re-establish itself. This was not necessarily to everyone’s benefit, but many of the principles espoused by post-Renaissance Europe are sound and admirable, and I am satisfied that Enlightenment principles, whatever their source, are the way forward. However, it seems as though in the ghosts of the dark ages are re-emerging:
Black scientists in the US are much less likely to be awarded funding than their white counterparts, says a US government research-funding agency. The National Institutes of Health said that out of every 100 funding applications it considered, 30 were granted to white applicants. This compared with 20 to black applicants.
The study, published in the journal Science, found the gap could not be explained by education or experience. It suggested small differences in access to resources and mentoring early in a scientist’s career could accumulate, leaving black researchers at a disadvantage.
Now, to be sure, this is not the same situation as medieval Europe. Black people today, even as statistically disadvantaged as they (we) are, are far better off than the vast majority of medieval Euroopeans. I am not trying to forge some kind of equivalence between the entire collapse of a society and failure to receive grant funding. However, what this does put me in mind of is the seemingly-intentional exclusion of a group of people from those pursuits that can have the biggest impact on improving their lives. I suppose now that I should state unequivocally that I don’t think the National Institute of Sciences is being intentionally racist or actively discriminating against black scientists – what I am saying is that the proof is in the outcome. There appears to be a systematic bias at the NIH against black scientists:
We investigated the association between a U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) R01 applicant’s self-identified race or ethnicity and the probability of receiving an award by using data from the NIH IMPAC II grant database, the Thomson Reuters Web of Science, and other sources. Although proposals with strong priority scores were equally likely to be funded regardless of race, we find that Asians are 4 percentage points and black or African-American applicants are 13 percentage points less likely to receive NIH investigator-initiated research funding compared with whites. After controlling for the applicant’s educational background, country of origin, training, previous research awards, publication record, and employer characteristics, we find that black applicants remain 10 percentage points less likely than whites to be awarded NIH research funding. Our results suggest some leverage points for policy intervention
Those who deny the existence of systematic racism often make the argument that the differences observed between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ is due to real and meaningful differences in things like education. It is entirely right that scientists who are less qualified to conduct research (lacking in practical research experience, lacking in credentials that demonstrate scientific competence, lacking the infrastructural capacity to guarantee quality data collection) should not receive the same number of grants. However, this study controlled for education and other related qualifications, so we can’t use that as an explanation of the disparity. It also controlled for the quality of application itself, as evinced by the quality score that each application received, so that’s off the table as well.
The next obvious culprit is that because these NIH grants are really difficult to get, what we might be seeing is simply black applicants giving up more easily. After all, many of these kinds of things are only awarded on repeat resubmission. Maybe black scientists, thanks to the culture of poverty put forward by the welfare state and affirmative action, are simply expecting things to be handed to them. When they don’t get it, they give up. Perhaps white scientists, used to having to work for their success rather than getting a hand up from ol’ Uncle Sam, show the kind of perseverance, dedication, and willingness to adapt that is required to be a success:
Next, we examined the average number of grants per person, the proportion of investigators submitting single and multiple grants, and the likelihood of application resubmission. On average, investigators had three to four Type 1 R01 grant applications each. We found that blacks and Asians resubmitted more times before being awarded an R01 (2.01, P < .06 and 1.85, P < 0.001, respectively) compared with whites (1.58), and at the same time blacks (45%) and Hispanics (56%) were significantly less likely to resubmit an unfunded application compared with white investigators (64%, P < 0.001) (table S6)
The one factor that seems causally linked with success that the authors could find in their exploration of the data had to do with differences in having received training programs on writing NIH grants, but even when that effect is ‘controlled for’ statistically, black scientists still trailed by 10 percent. The damage, of course, goes much further than simply the individual scientists. Science and critical thinking is the path to greater success and innovation in the black community, and if black scientists are, as the data seems to suggest, discriminated against based on their race, then this disparity will only become more deeply entrenched.
So what are they doing about it?
NIH director Francis Collins said it would take action to address the potential for “insidious bias” in the grant process. Mr Collins said it was possible that reviewers could guess the race or ethnicity of an applicant by looking at names or where they trained. He said they would look at reviewing grants on the basis of scientific merits alone, without requiring information about an applicant’s qualifications or background.
This is the kind of response I like to see. Not a bunch of denials, not a bunch of arch-liberal hand-wringing over “how could this happen in this day and age?”, just a clear plan of action. Say what you like about Francis Collins’ wacky justification for his theism, but never deny that he’s doing the right thing here. I will be interested to see the follow-up study to see whether this improves the situation, or if there is yet another explanatory factor.
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