Playing The Race Card (Again and Again)

Playing the race card (Again And Again)

Martin Loney
National Post

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

The accusation of racism is a serious one in our society. But that is just the charge UN special envoy Stephen Lewis effectively has made against all of us. Responding to the question “Why does the West ignore Africa?” while speaking at the Canadian Club in Toronto recently, Lewis approvingly quoted Senator Romeo Dallaire's claim that “there is an unacknowledged, subterranean racism at work.” Lewis decried the “inexplicable resistance to the Continent and a willingness to find millions of lives expendable.” Warming to his theme, he dismissed the West's response as “paralysis, inertia, indifference and passivity.” Lewis also bemoaned the failure of “the big multinational corporations, whether in Canada or abroad,” to make financial contributions to the Global Fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.

It is a theme Western audiences have heard from Lewis many times. But before corporations rush to open their chequebooks, they may want to cast a critical eye over Lewis's previous forays into racial politics.

Soon after his election as premier of Ontario, Bob Rae asked Lewis, a former leader of the federal NDP, to investigate the 1992 Toronto mini-riots, which had followed the beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles, and to advise the government on race relations. Lewis's report, which took the form of an extensive letter to the premier, had a defining influence on the direction of the Rae government.

Using the riots as a newsy pretext, Lewis described a province where racism and discrimination were pervasive. The passage of the government's proposed employment equity legislation, he claimed, was the priority of “every single minority grouping.” Furthermore, Lewis found a “crisis of faith” in the Ontario Public Service — in spite of the existence of an accelerated equity program. The problem of discrimination and under-representation of minorities, he claimed, also extended to the political staffing of ministers' offices. Bill 79, a draconian plan for preferential hiring, would become a central objective of the Rae government, and a key rallying point for Mike Harris's Common Sense Revolution.

Lewis condemned the education system, asking why so many visible minority students eschewed university. Naturally, he endorsed the demands of those who sought to inject into the curricula a plethora of culturally sensitive courses –black history, most notably –and demanded that a quota of 9% of all places in education faculties be reserved for visible-minority students.

Few Ontarians would recognize this depiction of their province as a hotbed of racial discontent. But whatever may have been the real state of race relations in the province, the most striking aspect of Lewis's report was his consistent disregard for evidence. The Ontario Public Service, far from discriminating against visible minorities, had afforded them significant opportunities. The Ontario government's 1993 report on employment equity indicated that as recently as 1986, visible minorities made up less than 9% of the province's working age population. But by 1991, they comprised nearly 13% of provincial employees. Obviously, many were recent appointees — and yet there was little difference between the earnings of visible minorities and other employees. How this could have led to the “crisis of faith” reported by Lewis is a mystery.

It is also interesting to note that a 1991 census by the Toronto Board of Education found that Asian students, many of whom were first-generation immigrants, outperformed white students. Visible minorities were well represented in university enrolment and on their way to becoming a majority at the University of Toronto.

Lewis continued to castigate Canadians for their discriminatory behaviour. Six years ago, addressing a meeting of the Canadian Association of Provincial Court Judges, he claimed that not only had Canada abandoned the poor, but that visible-minority Canadians continue to be the poorest of the poor. Yet Lewis was wrong: Overall, visible minorities who were born in Canada do at least as well, on average, as other Canadians.

Lewis particularly singled out black Canadians whose high levels of poverty, he said, reflected “racism, pure and simple.” But analysis shows that their poverty actually results from elevated high-school drop-out rates and the large number of single-parent families.

In short, Lewis has been one of the leading proponents of the view that “institutional racism” is everywhere in Canada –a ubiquitous scourge that systematically oppresses minorities. (His spouse, former Toronto Star columnist Michele Landsberg, has also championed this theory. In one noteworthy statement, she blamed the bungled Bernardo investigation on racism, declaring, “If that guy had been black, they would have been on it in a flash. Racism helped kill those girls.”)

Lewis's latest pronouncements against corporate racism display his customary preference for finger pointing over careful analysis. Fulminating about AIDS in Africa Lewis spent far more time denouncing the West than addressing the social mores and endemic corruption that facilitated the rapid spread of the disease. In his latest outburst, Lewis referred to “the vile slander that Africa is too corrupt to support.” In reality, the financial cost of the venality of African leaders not only exceeds the total flow of aid into the continent, it ensures that much of that aid is wasted.

In other words, Lewis is a man who sees racism behind every problem — even if the data show otherwise. Whatever the merits of corporations spending shareholders' money on social causes, they would be ill-advised to do it on the basis of race-based guilt trips served 0up by Stephen Lewis.

– Martin Loney is the author of The Pursuit of Division: Race, Gender and Preferential Hiring in Canada.