Andray Domise: Systemic racism does not mean everyone in a system is racist

By Andray Domise - Published on April 22, 2016
Yasir Naqvi, Minister of Community Safety and Correctional Services.
Minister of Community Safety and Correctional Service Yasir Naqvi announced draft regulation for public input that would prohibit carding, or street checks in 2015. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

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Last week Richard W. (I’ve withheld his surname at his request), an insurance manager, was pulled over by Peel Regional police while driving his Porsche Cayenne. He was on his way to the gym, dressed as one would expect of a man on his way to the gym: track pants, t-shirt and baseball cap with a du-rag underneath. Richard wasn’t speeding, drifting into another lane, or texting and driving. Richard just had the misfortune of being a black man driving an expensive vehicle through the streets of downtown Brampton. Though his plate was clearly visible through the cover he’d purchased from the Ministry of Transportation, the officers who pulled him over claimed they weren’t able to read the plate number. And then one of the officers asked Richard if he’d ever been arrested before.

Richard knew this game. What began as a benign interaction had suddenly turned into an interrogation; the police hadn’t pulled him over for road safety, but for a fishing expedition. Knowing the reputation Peel police have earned for having zero patience for noncompliance (the phrase “Peel don’t deal” will elicit many a knowing nod among black and brown youth in the region), Richard politely allowed his privacy and civil rights to be violated. He answered the officers’ questions, none of which had to do with his driving record or the infraction he’d supposedly committed, and was able to go home unmolested.

Others are often not so lucky.

Stories like Richard’s are as common among Ontario’s black communities as rice and peas at the dinner table. And yet, to hear it from Toronto Police Association president Mike McCormack (as well as the bevy of talkshow radio hosts and newspaper columnists eager to parrot his talking points), we are mistaken, exaggerating or flat-out lying when we say Ontario has a problem with systemic racism. A week prior to Richard’s questioning, Premier Kathleen Wynne acknowledged to assembled Black Lives Matter protesters that, indeed, systemic racism does exist in our society, and that much more work needs to be done at the policy level to address that. Later that day, as reported by Joe Warmington in the Toronto Sun, McCormack demanded to know whether Wynne was referring to Toronto police in her comments. Later, he issued a memo to 7,000 police association members, warning that “legislation/policy changes may severely impact your ability to provide effective policing and expose you to unnecessary risk.”

For his part, Warmington spent days on social media demanding proof of systemic racism within the Toronto police, promising to call out officers with a demonstrable track record of discrimination. Newstalk 1010 host Jerry Agar also demanded to be educated about the seemingly ethereal concept of systemic racism, flummoxed that anyone would suggest Ontario’s police services, or any other public service, would be staffed by racists.

If it weren’t so galling, it would almost be amusing that three men, whose jobs require at least a rudimentary understanding of bureaucratic systems, could spend  so much time and energy being publicly baffled as to the meaning of this term.

No matter how many times it’s pointed out, none of these public voices seem to get that systemic racism does not mean everyone within a bureaucratic system is racist. Richard, for example, couldn’t care less about what racial malice might have lived in the hearts of the police officers who pulled him over. What he does care about is the fact that he’s been stopped and questioned by Peel police six times over the last year, including in the front yard of his own home. He is concerned  that officers have often made a point of asking him what kind of work he does, to connect his profession to the type of vehicle he is driving. And he does care that he can expect to be put through many more incidents just like the one he encountered last week, because to be black and to drive a nice car in Brampton is to make oneself a target.

This is not the result of a police force staffed entirely by racists. It is the result of a bureaucratic system that tolerates racism within its ranks. It is the result of a police chief who not only defied the Peel Police Services Board, but the mayors of Mississauga and Brampton, who led a board vote to end street checks. Despite the clear rejection by the residents of Peel Region of the carding practice, chief Jennifer Evans insists her officers will continue with the harassing and dehumanizing policy.

Beyond the insistence of our police services to follow, document, harass and sometimes even assault black and brown youth, there is the end result of these practices: the transferring of bodies from homes and neighbourhoods into other systems, which produce even more harmful outcomes.  A phone call to police from a teacher or neighbour can result in children removed from their homes and placed in foster care (black children represent 41 per cent of children in the care of Toronto Children’s Aid, yet make up only 8 per cent of Toronto’s  population under the age of 18). Until a recent Supreme Court decision, an arrest stemming from possession of minor amounts of drugs carried a minimum  prison sentence of one year. It’s no wonder that black Canadians make up the fastest-growing population in our federal prisons.

This is how systemic racism works. It is not fuelled by a collection of ghouls, gorgons and malevolent spirits working in the name of racial oppression. It doesn’t even require that its participants themselves be racist. All it requires is a resistance to change and a willingness to ignore the fact that the original design of our social systems — education, child welfare, policing, health, immigration — were crafted to marginalize, if not exclude, racialized groups. It requires ignoring data that clearly shows black people are far more likely to be stopped by police when suspected of no crime, to be arrested, convicted and imprisoned for nonviolent offences. It also requires explaining away all of those facts as either happenstance or proof of black pathology.

Perhaps the officers who stopped Richard on his way to the gym were acting in good faith. Maybe that was the case every time he’s been stopped and questioned over the last year. Even if this were true, any system that puts him through this much police contact while he goes about his daily life is a system in need of drastic overhaul.

Andray Domise is a community activist and writer.

Correction, April 25: A previous version of this article incorrectly said Toronto Police Association president Mike McCormack “took his grievances” to the Toronto Sun’s Joe Warmington. In fact, Warmington called McCormack and asked him to comment. TVO.org regrets the error. 

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