Saturday, June 13, 2020

What does "systemic racism" really mean - Part 1

I suppose it was only a matter of time before I felt obliged to tackle the question of what is "systemic racism". The phrase has been bandied around so much recently that its meaning might seem obvious, but I'm not so sure.

I have no intention of trying to show that there is no racism in this country - clearly there is - I just want to make sure that we are all on the same page and talking about the same thing when we are discussing the problem, because I'm not sure that is the case. Call it a concern over semantics if you like, but sometimes semantics and language can be important, as I'm sure anti-racism campaigners would agree.

Every Canadian government, corporation and organizational leader has been almost obliged to make a public statement admitting to, not just racism, but systemic racism. It has become almost an article of faith, part of a new anti-racist catechism or credo, at least here in Canada. While Donald Trump has, predictably, not even entertained the idea, over-achiever and inveterate virtue-signaller Justin Trudeau has admitted to the existence systemic racism "in ALL our institutions, including in all our police forces". I know that this is something that black people are calling for - the official recognition of the problem - although I'm still not sure how it helps to fix the problem.

RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki, on the other hand, has attracted a whole lot of opprobrium and not a little scorn when she admitted in a live interview that has been "struggling with the definition of systemic racism". She comes across a bit of a ditherer in this interview, which is not really what you need in a police chief, I admit. But what she says seems to be no more than the truth. As she says in a different interview, "I'm struggling wiith it because I've heard five or six different definitions" ("five or ten" in another interview, "fifteen or twenty" in yet another interview).

I think that, if she had been asked whether there was "widespread racism" in the RCMP, for example, she would have been able to give a much clearer answer. But she had a genuine, and understandable, confusion about a concept she was being asked to publicly admit to, and therefore qualified her answer, which seems reasonable to me under the circumstances. There is no shortage of letters to newspapers and websites calling her an idiot, and saying, "it's obvious, I can tell you exactly what systemic racism is", and then proceeding to give different (often radically different) interpretations of it.

And just while we are still on the hapless Ms. Lucki, she has been a bit maligned by the press, I think. For example, iPolitics has a blazing headline, "'We don't have systemic racism' RCMP comissioner says", but that's actually not what she says at all, despite the headline's misleading use of speech marks. What she does do in that interview, and what has so incensed people, is to qualify her answer, by saying, "If it refers to an unconscious bias that exists ... we definitely have that in the RCMP and we are not immune to it at all". She is basically trying to be careful in a situation where rashness can lead to dangerous misunderstandings. Or to meaningless virtue-signalling. In another of her many recent interviews, however, she says, "I think systemically there's racism in most organizations and I don't think the RCMP is immune to that". That seems reasonably clear to me, and definitely not what iPolitics is claiming.

I see that, after all that, I have still not even touched on what "systemic racism" actually means, so I will leave that for another day, and Part 2.

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