Against the racialization of everything

Race, as I and many other academics never tire of reminding people, is a social construct. Many people who say this, however, do so in a perfunctory manner, before going on to treat it as though it were a natural kind, eternal and unchangeable. For me, the point of emphasizing the “constructedness” of race is to emphasize that is it not an inevitable social category. It is a particular way that many people have of framing certain aspects of individual identity and social interaction. It is, however, not the only, and not a necessary way, of framing things. Thus it always makes sense to ask, in any particular circumstance, whether race is the best way of framing an issue. The question is whether race, as a category, is really getting at what’s important in a given situation.

This question has particular salience at the moment, because many social justice advocates in Canada have been pushing fairly hard for a number of social problems that were traditionally framed in terms of immigration and ethnicity (and multiculturalism) to be reframed in terms of race (and anti-discrimination). The Toronto Star has been particularly relentless in its campaign to racialize a huge number of issues. (The federal government seems to be in danger of catching the bug as well, with its proposal to have a commission on systemic racism.) In my view, this involves a mischaracterization of most of these issues, which will ultimately make them more difficult to solve.

Thinking about Canada’s social problems in terms of race actually strikes me as a terrible idea, and as a setback to the cause of social justice (and, for what it’s worth, to multicultural integration). Also, I must confess, underlying my concern is a suspicion that it represents a form of creeping Americanism, or of “cognitive capture” of Canadian activists and elites by American public discourse. Some of it is a consequence of twitter, and of the influence of movements like Black Lives Matter online. Some is a consequence of solidarity, wanting to “fight the power” (like the various Canadians who, weirdly, felt impelled to stage their own March for Our Lives protest against gun violence, despite the fact that it’s an American problem, and protests in foreign countries against U.S. government policy are not likely to help the cause). But when you think about it, it’s not as though Americans have been successful at solving any of their race problems. In fact they are doing a terrible job. So why would we want to imitate their policies? Or their way of thinking about the problem? It would be like Quebec looking to Kashmir for inspiration on how to address its national aspirations.

One other thing. To say that race is socially constructed is not to claim, as many mistakenly do, that there is not an underlying biological phenomenon. On my view, all linguistic categories are social constructed, so it is in fact pleonastic to say that race, or gender, is a “social construct.” So is coffee. Some categories, however, come closer to “carving nature at the joints” (as we like to say in philosophy) than others. The problem with the concept of race, particularly in the way that Americans use it, is that it is both arbitrary and overgeneral, and thus does not come even close to picking out what we call a “natural kind.” The most self-evident absurdity, of course, is the treatment of all Asians, including people from both India and China, as one “race” (an artifact of the U.S. Census, which offers only five tick-boxes for individuals to identify their “race”).

Americans are accustomed to overlooking these absurdities, however, because when they talk about “race,” they are really only talking about one thing, which is the relationship between “whites” and “blacks.” And when they talk about “blacks,” they are not really talking about “blacks,” just as “African-American” is not intended to refer to recent immigrants from Africa. These are all just oblique ways of referring of the population of Americans who are the descendants of African slaves, captured and brought to the Americas against their will. In academic terms, this population – “African-Americans” in the strict sense – is best described as an “ethnic group,” and not a racial population at all. It’s just that, between the U.S. civil war and the beginning of large-scale non-white immigration in the 1970s, the easiest way of distinguishing this ethnic group from the majority population was through its racial traits, in particular skin colour. And because a lot of discriminatory attitudes fixated on these racial traits, the language of race became entrenched in the U.S. as a way of talking about this problem.

In other words, when Americans talk about race, they’re not even talking about race, it’s really just an indirect way of talking about the legacy of slavery. It’s also a way of talking that has become increasingly confusing and problematic over time. For example, many recent immigrants to the United States from Africa (whom one would be inclined to describe as “black”) have highly prejudicial attitudes toward the native-born African-American population, and act in discriminatory ways toward them. The language of race, however, makes it very difficult to articulate what is going on here, instead it just obscures and confuses the issue. The more natural way of articulating the issue (using “political science” language) would be to characterize it as inter-ethnic conflict.

This is, it should be mentioned, the worthwhile point at the heart of most recent talk of “intersectionality.” People belong to multiple groups simultaneously, and have complex identities. Bad intersectionality transforms this into a type of status competition, allowing people who belong to more stigmatized categories to say “I’m more oppressed than you.” Good intersectionality involves the recognition that disadvantage can arise in a variety of ways. It also involves the recognition that these effects are not necessarily cumulative. For instance, there’s lots of evidence to suggest that African-American women in the U.S. experience much less discrimination than African-American men – so in this case, being a woman has the effect of counteracting some of the effects of racial discrimination.

Consider now the situation in Canada, and whether or not the large-scale importation of American race-talk is a useful contribution to the national discourse. My inclination is to say no, because there is practically no one in this country whose situation matches the rather particular situation of African-Americans. Canada was never economically dependent upon slavery, and the British Empire abolished it in 1833, before Canada became a country. There was, at one point, a largish population of escaped slaves, who took the “underground railroad” north to Canada. At the end of the U.S. civil war, however, they almost all returned to America, leaving only a very small population in Nova Scotia.

Because of this, almost the entire current black population in the country consists of first or second-generation immigrants, who have no pre-existing or shared “black” identity. This is obviously the case with, say, Somalis, or Malians, but even immigrants from the Caribbean tend to think of themselves as Trinidadian, or Haitian, or Jamaican, or whatever. So when the Toronto Star talks about the “black” population, it is referring, almost exclusively, to an extremely heterogeneous population of immigrants and their immediate descendants.

The immediate question that this raises is whether, when these groups experience disadvantage or discrimination, it is due to their “race,” or due to their more specific ethnicity, or their religion, or their status as immigrants. I suspect that an intersectional analysis would almost always reveal that a more fine-grained set of categories, derived from immigration and ethnicity, does a better job at articulating the specific forms of oppression experienced by these groups. (In this context, it is worth keeping in mind that hostility toward immigrants and racial animosity are two quite different things. They often coincide, but not always. For instance, the anti-immigrant sentiment that drove the Brexit vote in the U.K. was peculiarly fixated on recent immigrants from Eastern Europe, particularly Poles. The fact that Polish immigrants to the U.K. are overwhelmingly white and Christian shows that there is no necessary connection between racism and xenophobia.)

So the first question one should ask, in a Canadian context, is whether the various forms of disadvantage that many black Canadians experience is due more to being black, or to being an immigrant. It matters, because the kind of steps one would need to take, in order to correct the former problem, may be quite different from the steps that must be taken to correct the latter. And yet there has been a tendency to gravitate to race as the explanation for everything, even in the absence of evidence. (For instance, the Toronto Star recently reported on a study, purporting to show racial discrimination in the job market, under the headline: “Black job seekers have harder time finding retail and service work than their white counterparts, study suggests.” It was the standard sort of study, where job applications are submitted, which have different names on them but are otherwise identical. In this case, however, the “white” name used was Katie Foster, while the “black” name was Khadija Nzeogwu. The latter name suggests that the person is not just black, but also Muslim and Nigerian. Absurdly, there is no record of any attempt to control for employer perceptions of immigration status, language ability, or religion. The Star just leaped to the assumption that it was about the race of the applicant.)

Here’s why this concerns me. Race relations in the U.S. are, as far as I can see, completely gridlocked. There’s a reason they call it the “American curse.” The problem is unsolvable, in part because the entire population is locked into a small configuration of views, which no one is willing to change, and which reproduces the essential dynamic. The current unhappy equilibrium is one that, in my view, is being sustained by all sides, both liberal and conservative, white and black. Canada’s “race” problems, by contrast, look to me far more solvable, in part because they’re not really race problems at all, but rather challenges having to do with immigrant integration. And unlike the U.S. and its race problems, Canada actually has a fairly positive track record when it comes to solving immigrant integration problems. More generally, the language of multiculturalism provides a more successful framework for working out solutions than the American language of race and affirmative action. Thus I really do not understand the impulse to racialize these conflicts – it involves throwing out a vocabulary and a way of thinking that has some track record of success, in favour of a way of thinking that is an acrimonious failure.

(The Star, it should be noted, likes to refer to the visible minority population as “racialized.” People who use this phrase are tacitly suggesting that there are bad people out there who are doing all this racializing. As far as I can tell, however, it is the Star that is being the most aggressive at racializing immigrants to Canada. Immigrants do not arrive from Ethiopia and Jamaica with a shared “black” identity. It is the supposedly progressive left that is currently doing the most to foist it upon them, at least in public discourse.)

Finally, I think that the most pernicious consequence of creeping American race-talk has been the way that it has encouraged Indigenous Canadians to think of their problems in racial terms, and even worse, to imagine that black and Indigenous Canadians face similar challenges and obstacles. The problem is that the two groups are in completely different situations, with respect to the challenges and demands of integration into Canadian society. Most obviously, the on-reserve Indigenous population groups have more in common with Hutterites than they do with (almost entirely urban) black Canadians. But more importantly, their aspirations and demands are different. First Nations want, and are entitled to demand, self-government and respect for their sovereignty. Immigrants want (and are only entitled to demand) integration. These two political agendas push in opposite directions (keeping in mind that black Canadians are “settlers” and “colonialists,” from an Indigenous perspective.) Lumping them together into the same category, with the suggestion that they both face the same basic challenge – dealing with “racism” – gravely misrepresents the situation that Indigenous people are in.


Against the racialization of everything — 4 Comments

  1. In a previous piece you listed reasons why the Canadian experience with (non-European) immigration has been more positive than in Europe and the US. While the reasons you mention may have some explanatory power, you ignored the elephant in the room: Canada practices selective immigration to a much greater degree than Europe or the US. The upshot is that immigration has created a new welfare-dependent underclass in Europe in particular, whereas in Canada (and a few other places like Australia) it has created a new middle class. The political implications of these different immigration policies are very different. Voluntarily introducing American-style race problems to homogeneous societies by immigration is of course the great mistake of postwar politics all across the West, but I would guess the racialization of politics will be a smaller problem in Canada than elsewhere because race and socioeconomic status are less correlated.

  2. Great piece. The Star’s efforts to racialize everything are, I suspect, even worse than you suggest: they don’t talk about the “black” community, but rather the “Black” community. This relatively recent editorial choice (which sets it apart from all the other major Canadian news outlets, as far as I can tell) treats the word “black” as a proper noun. While common nouns are used to identify a class of (among other things) people (which, for the reasons you outlined, is already ill-fitting when referring to the “black community”), a proper noun is used to name a particular well-defined class of people (roughly). Personally, I had read “black community” as referring to the collection of (diverse) black populations in Canada; “Black community” seems to suggest a certain uniformity or rigidness to the population.

    Of course, this grammatical choice didn’t begin with the Star (though I don’t know where or when exactly it did begin). I suspect the choice was made as some way of signalling respect (or something) to black people, but of course, it seems like it will only have the effect of making more rigid certain racial categories.

  3. A lot of the history in this post is simply wrong. For example: “There was, at one point, a largish population of escaped slaves, who took the ‘underground railroad’ north to Canada. At the end of the U.S. civil war, however, they almost all returned to America, leaving only a very small population in Nova Scotia.” The research of Michael Wayne at U of T has shown this to be incorrect. The majority of the Blacks living Canada West on the eve of the Civil War were actually born in Canada, and the majority of African-American immigrants were in fact free people rather than escaped slaves. And the majority of these Black Canadians stayed in Canada after the war, and did not return to the United States.

    More importantly, while Canada did not have a formal system of Jim Crow, informal segregation was the rule in Canadian cities well until the 1970s. Landlords, police, and store owners generally conspired to keep Black Canadians confined to racially defined areas of the city, and it was understood that Blacks were meant to be a subordinate class. I’m sure you’ve heard of the case of Viola Desmond, and this article demonstrates that informal segregation was very much the case in Montreal as well:

    You might want to look at Constance Backhouse’s Colour-coded: A Legal History of Racism in Canada, and James W. St.G. Walker’s Race, Rights and the Law in the Supreme Court of Canada, for more on the salience of “race” as a salient factor in Canadian society in the 20th century.