Recently, I interpreted one of my doctoral exam questions as an invitation to discuss the banal, rampant anti-Americanism of Canadian society (which, as one of the professors so tactfully put it, was a “creative choice”). During my oral defens/ce, one of the professors questioned my emphasis on anti-Americanism, calling it an outdated trope of Canadian Studies.
This brings me to today’s post, which is in direct violation of my personal policy not to comment on anything as it happens, because sometimes one must make exceptions for one’s arbitrary rules. Particularly when one is furious and indignant. Furious and indignant are the best states of mind for rule-breaking.
Today, Globe & Mail (Canada-land) writer Doug Saunders prompted me to elaborate on my point about anti-Americanism with his article “Racial equality looks different from behind bars.” I opened the article looking for some commentary on Canadian human rights violations and the drastic over-representation of Black and Indigenous peoples in Canadian prisons. For example, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights report mentions the imbalanced statistics of incarceration for certain groups in Canada:
A variety of interlocutors have pointed out to systemic racism in policing and in the administration of justice. … [A]ccording to Correctional Service Canada, aboriginal people represent 4.4 per cent of the Canadian population, yet account for 18 per cent of the federally incarcerated population (in some provincial institutions, this latter figure reaches 50-60 per cent)…. [T]he Special Rapporteur is extremely preoccupied with the high rate of incarceration of, violence against and deaths in custody of aboriginals and people of African and Asian descent. [see previous post for citations]
I found that on Google by following up on something I read in Daniel Coleman’s book White Civility. That’s a good use of the resource called The Internet.
Instead I found, surprise surprise, a commentary on America-land. For your reading pleasure, here is Saunders’s introduction:
Of the woes befalling the United States, the one that poisoned the country for two centuries appears to be on the wane. There is a black President. There is a large and growing black middle class. And, after almost 50 years of legal equality, the economic, educational and political experiences of the 12 per cent of Americans who are descendants of slaves are converging with the rest of the country.
You know you’re of on the right foot when you open with the woes of America-land, a mention of the President (note, “black President”), and descendants of slaves. My point here is not to disregard the hardships of those held in captivity throughout the history of the United States, captivity that continues in many literal and figurative forms today, but rather to point out the absence of Black Canadians or descendants of Canadian slaves in Canada from this article. (For more on this, see Rachel Adams and Rinaldo Walcott – I list them here in alphabetical order.)
The rest of Saunders’s article discusses a book that considers the failure of statistics to give the full picture – a project that I heartily endorse. The book under consideration is Invisible Men: Mass Incarceration and the Myth of Black Progress by Becky Pettit. It seems great that sociological endeavors to debunk myths are being promoted in the Globe & Mail, but I can’t help but wonder what the coverage of a book by any Indigenous scholar, say one critiquing the power structures of the Canadian reserve system, would be. And I already know what the coverage of Black Canadian author Dionne Brand is (hint: she’s angry and black). Hence the moniker Globe & Fail.
Saunders’s conclusion is really the kicker:
There genuinely have been great gains for black Americans with education. But instead of expanding these gains, the United States has used prisons to freeze half the black population out of them. Canada is in danger of doing the same to its native population under new tough-on-crime laws – and as the U.S. example shows, sticking a country’s social problems in a box does not make them go away.
I tweeted my reply to this, which didn’t give me nearly enough room to expound on the many colonial and paternalistic assumptions reinscribed by this rhetoric. I said:
But really, capitalization is only part of it (but a big part of it, if you consider the privatization of pri$ons!). The warning about tough-on-crime laws is certainly prudent, but there is a large, painful irony in a discussion about the terrible residual resonance of slavery and ongoing marginalization in the United States by referring to the Indigenous peoples residing in a settler-invader-colony currently known as Canada with the laden phrase “its native population.”
My point is that articles like this – and there are so many, in newspapers, academia, blogs, and elsewhere – don’t challenge the status quo of racist practices in Canada. Yes, the United States has rampant systemic racism. But an article like this enables – even encourages – (certain) Canadians to be complacent about their own racist society. Canada isn’t “in danger” of having over-representation of Indigenous and Black peoples in prisons – Canada has the same systemic problems of violence, marginalization, exploitation, neo-liberal policies, and colonialism. After all, “racism knows no borders.”
The question is, what will we do about it?
Now that I’ve taken this opportunity to use “reinscribed” in a blog post, I’m going to go rage eat some pancakes.