Racism yardstick: It’s all about oppression

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By David Camfield*

What is racism? Manitoba media outlets have been full of coverage of the charge that a 2012 email sent by deputy premier Eric Robinson was racist.

The controversy took off after the media reported that Osborne House CEO Barbara Judt had filed a complaint with the Manitoba Human Rights Commission alleging racism. Provincial Tory Leader Brian Pallister and others have repeated that charge. As a result, as Free Press columnist Dan Lett puts it, “Robinson has been forced to fight the allegations he is a racist.”

Racism is repugnant and harmful. That’s why what’s most worrying about the ongoing furor is the confusion about what racism is — and isn’t.

In his 2002 book Racism: A Short History, historian George Fredrickson offers an excellent starting point for clarifying what racism is: “Racism exists when one ethnic group or historical collectivity dominates, excludes, or seeks to eliminate another on the basis of differences that it believes are hereditary and unalterable.”

Fredrickson’s summary contains three important insights. First, racism is a social or collective phenomenon, not simply a matter of individual behaviour. It involves a relationship between groups of people, one oppressing and the other oppressed. Of course, these groups are made up of individuals. People in the dominant group may actively practise racism, passively allow it to go on or consciously try to challenge it.

Second, a group of people who experience racism are treated as being somehow inherently different than members of the dominant group. Skin colour, other physical features, religion and cultural practices have all been singled out by dominant groups to define what makes oppressed groups inherently different.

Third, racism is entirely a creation of society. There is nothing natural about it or the different groups it creates.

As Fredrickson and many other researchers have shown, racism hasn’t always existed. It spread and became a global phenomenon as European powers conquered and colonized other parts of the world.

Racism is quite different from how earlier conquerors sometimes treated the vanquished, and it’s also different from how religious groups persecuted each other. With racism, the oppressed people are treated as inherently different and tainted.

Two examples illustrate this. The ancient Greeks saw people as either civilized or barbarians but this status was not something one inherited. Jews were undoubtedly oppressed in medieval Christian Europe because of their religion. Sometimes they were even murdered by mobs. But if they gave up their religion, they would no longer be oppressed. In Fredrickson’s words, “even the mobs did not regard Jews as beyond redemption… to be baptized rather than killed was a real option.” The development of racism turned the persecution of Jewish believers into the oppression of people designated as Jews, regardless of individuals’ religious beliefs. In anti-Jewish racism, what mattered was “blood” ancestry, not religion.

Once we understand what racism is, we can see that in Canada today white people do not experience racism — on the contrary. White people as a group are not oppressed on the basis of their so-called race.

The evidence is clear. Equal rights in law don’t translate into social equality. Whether we look at income, wealth, health, housing, unemployment, treatment by the police and the courts, political power or any other meaningful measure, it is people of colour and indigenous people who collectively are worse off.

Obviously many white people also have low incomes, live in poor housing or are treated badly on the job. This is a consequence of class division, not racism. The fact white people are less likely to experience such harmful conditions than indigenous people and people of colour shows who experiences racism in Canada and who doesn’t.

No one denies some individuals who aren’t white may have hostile attitudes to white people (given racism and colonialism past and present, is this any surprise?). The important point is such prejudices don’t carry a lot of punch in a society in which white people as a group aren’t oppressed. Such attitudes aren’t manifestations of racism.

Once we take a step back and see Robinson’s email in this larger context, it’s obvious the allegations of racism against him are wrong and misguided.

In a racially divided province such as Manitoba, if there is anything positive about this situation, it’s that there’s an opportunity to sort out what racism is so more people can take effective action against it.

David Camfield is an associate professor in the labour studies program at the University of Manitoba, where he teaches a course on racism and work.

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