New Perspectives: A Senior Moment – “SYSTEMIC RACISM?”

I have delayed commenting publicly on the ongoing, loud and impassioned debate about race relations here and in the USA. My silence did not reflect a lack of interest in nor lack of experience with this volatile issue. I approach the discussion from three perspectives.

Over parts of two summers in the mid-1960s, I volunteered as a civil rights worker in solidly segregated Mississippi. I saw firsthand the systemic oppression of blacks: those who bravely dared to vote, those who tried to enter a ‘WHITES ONLY’ restaurant for a cold drink of soda on a sweltering July afternoon, those who only sought a fair wage for their back-breaking work in cotton fields. I walked past a rundown, local jail filled with unjustly-sentenced black inmates who sang hymns through the bars early on a Sunday morning. I witnessed police brutality across the State line in Selma.

By contrast, I served as volunteer Chaplain for ten years with our local Saugeen Shores Police Service. By quietly observing and listening during many “ride-alongs,” I learned a lot about police work and found much to admire and appreciate. I also had an uncle and a niece who were officers in Toronto. I was proud of their contribution to the community. Every officer, in any jurisdiction, can face risk and danger at a moment’s notice. Yet, I expect the typical daily experiences of a big city American cop as documented on such reality show as COPS and Live-PD would differ markedly from the normally much quieter patrols through our Western Ontario small towns. Just compare how frequently a police gun is drawn in each setting.

A third perspective I bring to the issue of police/community interactions is based on my interventions in mental health crises in Peterborough. Decades ago, when I was Director of the city’s Family Counselling Service, I would at times be asked to accompany an officer responding to a 911 call about “someone causing a disturbance and behaving irrationally”. This was long before such team interventions were widely adopted in Ontario. On one occasion, we arrived at the bus depot where a disheveled, rough-looking, young man was yelling and threatening passengers in the Departures area. If the officer had resorted to traditional attempts at physically restraining this troubled individual, the situation could have quickly escalated, perhaps leading to injury… or worse. Recognizing what seemed to be symptoms of paranoia, I was able to “talk him down” without incident. The young man then allowed us to take him to the hospital.

Having once worn these three different “hats”, what observations can I make of daily headlines and news reports about “systemic racism”?  I no longer wear any hats so can speak just as a member of the community. I would begin by trying to clarify words that can be tossed around a bit carelessly. (Quoted definitions are from Collins Dictionary.)

BIAS: “—a tendency to prefer one person or thing over another.” In my opinion, we all have biases, whether it be in selecting a brand of automobile or choosing a friend. In itself, there is nothing wrong with having preferences, unless they originate in prejudice.

PREJUDICE: “—an unreasonable dislike of a particular group of people—.” To “dislike” those hordes of visitors who carelessly overcrowded Sauble Beach last weekend is not an “unreasonable” response. But most of our prejudices emanate from holding unreasonable assumptions about a person or group before knowing them. We pre-judge without reason; we assume without evidence; we generalize without logic.

DISCRIMINATION: “—the practice of treating one group less fairly—.” When we negatively act upon our prejudices, we discriminate. When Toronto police are accused of stopping a black person based only on racial profiling, they can be accused of discrimination. The practice of “carding” has been largely abandoned. Confusingly, we can also use the term as a compliment: “Susan has such discriminating taste in choosing furniture.”

Racism: “—the belief that people of some races are inferior to others—then treated differently or denied some opportunity.” Once a prejudice triggers discrimination which extends to a whole ethnic group, it becomes racism. The belief that one’s own racial group is superior has been defined by sociologists as “ethnocentrism.”.

Systemic Racism: Here is where RCMP spokespersons and a few politicians have gotten into trouble. Racism can be codified or inherent. Mississippi had anti-black laws codified in statutes. Canada’s Indian Act could be considered as codified. But generally, Canada does not practice codified systemic racism. In that sense, those much-maligned voices were correct. However, a more contemporary definition of systemic racism describes prejudice and discrimination which, while not imbedded in law like 1950s apartheid South Africa, is still influencing the behaviour of some in authority when dealing with visible minorities. Where necessary, I think change will be implemented. Where change is not required, I believe we need to appreciate the excellent and difficult work already being carried out by police services across our country … another reason to celebrate on Canada Day.

When we approach the discussion of police-minority interactions or more generally cross-cultural relationships in our country, it is helpful to clarify terms and definitions which in the heat of the moment can become blurred.

My belief is that, one day, we will reach that pinnacle of understanding so eloquently enunciated by Dr. Martin Luther King. In his 1963 Washington speech, the civil rights leader referred to a possible better future for his four little children and indirectly for each of us, regardless of our race. His hope was that someday everyone:

“—will not be judged by the colour of their skin
but by the content of their character.”