Report's Claims About Racism Need To Be Challenged
Reprinted In The Vancouver Sun
December 27, 2008
Few things are as predictable as the reaction to a claim that racism is getting worse. There will be some who say, yes. It's true. It's terrible. We must do something.
And there will be others who say, this is nonsense. You're exaggerating. Don't be ridiculous.
Those who accept the claim uncritically will be from the left of the political spectrum. Those who dismiss it out of hand will be from the right.
And one more thing will be predictable: No one will bother to actually look at the evidence offered in support of the claim.
So it was when the Roots of Youth Violence report was released last week. “Racism is becoming more serious and entrenched (in Canada) than it was in the past,” claimed Roy McMurtry, former attorney general and chief justice of Ontario, and Alvin Curling, former MPP.
This is an extraordinary claim. And as Carl Sagan once observed, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.
So what evidence did McMurtry and Curling provide?
“In connecting with a new generation of youth through this review, and hearing from front-line service providers and community leaders in more direct and intense ways than we had in recent years,” McMurtry and Curling write, “the startling degree to which racism continues to plague this province was driven home to us.”
In other words, they talked to people who told them, presumably, of their experiences and perceptions. That's a valid way to proceed. Journalists do it all the time. But as evidence of something as big as the claim the authors are making, it is of limited value.
Researchers who study popular opinion randomly sample the population they want to study. They have to. Any other method of gathering people to talk to is likely to bias the sample in one direction or another. And remember that the conversations someone has are filtered through their own perceptions and preconceptions, which can further skew the conclusions the interviewer draws.
There's a reason why social scientists don't take journalists' impressions too seriously.
So what else did McMurtry and Curling come up with in their nearly 500-page report?
They note that many people raised racism as a serious issue “especially in relation to how it affects economic outcomes for many groups.”
They then quote an academic who found “40 per cent of the members of African ethno-racial groups are below Statistics Canada's low-income cutoff, compared to 30 per cent of the Arab and West Asian groups and about 20 per cent of the South Asian, East Asian, Caribbean and South and Central American ethno-racial groups. The figure for European ethno-racial groups is 10.8 per cent.”
McMurtry and Curling simply take it as a given that racism lies beneath the disparities in these numbers.
That's a mistake because there may be any number of other causes. For one thing, ethnic minorities are far more likely to be recent immigrants, and recent immigrants are far more likely to be poor. My WASP grandfather was very poor after he arrived in this country, but it was the fact that he arrived with $60 in his pocket that was to blame, not racism.
And so, without further analysis, the data about income disparities prove nothing. Unfortunately, the authors provide no further analysis.
At this point, anyone reading the report should be alarmed. McMurtry and Curling have made a very big claim and provided very little to support it.
As if sensing how weak their case is, the authors bring down the hammer. “The Supreme Court has put to rest any doubts that could reasonably be raised about the pervasiveness of racism in this country. In its 2005 R. v. Spence decision, the Court said: 'The courts have acknowledged that racial prejudice against visible minorities is … notorious and indisputable … (it is) a social fact not capable of reasonable dispute.”
This is breathtaking. McMurtry and Curling baldly assert that no one can reasonably disagree because the Supreme Court has baldly asserted that no one can reasonably disagree.
The authors will excuse me if I don't find this reasoning persuasive, because it's not reasoning. It's bullying.
It's also misleading. In the passage quoted by the report, the Supreme Court merely said racism exists — that it is “notorious and indisputable.” The Court did not say anything about the extent of racism. Nor did it say racism is getting worse. So despite what McMurtry and Curling suggest, the Supreme Court's statement does not support their claim that “racism is becoming more serious and entrenched than it was in the past.”
And notice what hasn't come up in the “evidence” provided by the authors. How “serious and entrenched” was racism in the past? McMurtry and Curling don't even attempt to answer that question. So how can they possibly say racism is “more serious and entrenched” today?
Of course it's important to acknowledge that racism is very difficult to quantify and measure. It's not like counting widgets.
But this is an explosive subject. As McMurtry and Curling quite rightly note, it can be profoundly damaging to think you won't get a fair shake in life because of the colour of your skin. But what is a young black man to think when the esteemed authors of a major report declare that racism is worse than in the past? Can we blame him if he takes this as proof that he won't get a fair shake in life because of the colour of his skin?
McMurtry and Curling had a responsibility to restrain their rhetoric, to go no further than the evidence. They failed their responsibility.
And they aren't alone. Reporters and commentators have a responsibility to consider evidence before drawing conclusions. Here, they didn't. And to that extent they, too, failed their responsibilities.
You can contact Dan Gardner at the Ottawa Citizen.