Racism, Equality, and Public Policy

What follows will be a sort of “spiritual successor” to this post from two weeks ago. Namely, I’ll use this post to explore the applications of the relatively abstract ideas I proposed therein, specifically addressing their implications on public policy. After all, it’s one thing to suggest a potentially different approach to such a serious issue as racism, but it’s another thing altogether to actually discuss the impact such an approach could have on society and its institutions if adopted.

Since I’m revisiting the topic, I’ll begin with more or less the same preface. It is not my intent to offend, nor do I claim to offer the only perspective on this issue. Furthermore, I do not pretend to know all of the intricacies of government, legislation, and public policy. However, I believe that I’ve accumulated a decent understanding of the subject through general education and personal research. Should you wish to discuss this topic for one reason or another and if you are willing to do so in a calm and non-hostile manner, I again encourage you to send me an email at mitchell.s.gunn@gmail.com.

I’ll begin with a very brief summary of the central argument of my previous post: anyone and everyone can have a legitimate and valid perspective on the broad issues of racism, regardless of their own race, so long as said perspective is not rooted in hatred or pure reactionary emotion, is supported by rationality and evidence, and is expressed with politeness rather than aggression. One does not have to agree with all such perspectives, but they still invite discussion rather than simplistic summary rejection on the basis of their proponents’ identities.

So how does this fit with public policy?

Well, before we delve into that broad question, we once more need to specify what we mean by racism. Revisiting that handy dictionary entry, we again see that the first and third definitions tend to refer more to individuals or small groups and deal with racially-motivated hatred. This is certainly a big issue and one that is still prevalent in today’s society (more so than most people think), but the public policy fight on this front has more or less already been won — at least in Canada.

I hesitate to say that any aspect of the fight against racism has been “won,” but the Canadian government has taken a number of legislative steps to combat overt racial hatred and discrimination (here‘s an overview, or look at specific relevant legislation here and here). Some of the wording might be a little imprecise, but there’s an established body of case law that gives precedent for interpretation. There isn’t much else that the legislative branch of our government can reasonably do to combat racial hatred, at least not without heading down some very dangerous roads.

That’s not to say that racial hatred is completely absent from Canadian society, of course. There are still racist individuals and groups who would spout hate speech if given half a chance, but these people are now the responsibility of the judicial branch of our government or, in less extreme cases, concerned citizens. For example, someone distributing hateful propaganda can be arrested and charged, and if you see someone making implicitly racist remarks, you can politely explain how their behaviour is hurtful and ask them to make a change.

Since those sorts of interactions are now primarily resolved by individuals, governments largely have to be concerned with that second dictionary definition of racism: the institutional kind. To again reuse a source from two weeks ago, institutional racism is an incredibly pervasive problem that creates disproportionate hardship for people of colour, so this is an incredibly important battle for a government to fight.

Hang on a minute, though. This same government that should be fighting institutional racism is a part of the problem in and of itself. For one thing, the lack of diversity in Canada’s Parliament has been well-documented for years. The overwhelming majority of our legislators have never struggled against institutional racism in any aspect of their lives, yet they’re the ones that have the most power when it comes to directly fighting institutional racism. Is there any hope for progress or change whatsoever when our primary source for a solution is also part of the problem?

Well, yes. I would argue that there is, but only through some level of acknowledgment and acceptance of the principle I outlined way back in the third paragraph of this post. In fact, I would go so far as to say that said principle is a natural and necessary consequence of the very foundations of our representative democratic system.

Time for a quick explanation of the two main types of democratic systems, just in case anyone isn’t familiar with them already. Direct democracy is when each individual in a society has direct input on the policy of that society, both through the opportunity to voice their thoughts and a direct vote on the policy in question. This isn’t really practical on the national scale (getting millions of people to vote on each individual issue of policy would be incredibly time-consuming), so most federal governments use a representative democracy. In these systems, the citizens elect a relatively small group of representatives that they trust to make policy decisions on their behalf. Canadians will get the chance to pick these representatives in our federal election this fall.

The number of representatives in the Canadian Parliament will be increased to 338 for this election. That means that each Member of Parliament will represent, on average, about 106,000 citizens, spread across close to 27,000 square kilometres. As an aside, the United States’ ratio is even more dramatic, with one federal representative for about every 733,000 people (sources 1, 2).

Those 106,000 people will have lived vastly different lives with incredibly disparate experiences, priorities, and struggles. They will be spread out across all manner of demographic spectra, including race, gender, religion, and sexual orientation. And for the purposes of the Canadian Parliament, all of them will be represented by a single person.

If you think about it, that’s kind of terrifying. A Member of Parliament is responsible for representing the interests of all of the citizens in their jurisdiction, and yet, even in an ideal Parliament for which all demographics precisely mirrored the actual Canadian population, 81% of MPs would be white, just shy of 50% would be male, and 67% would be Christian (I don’t have a government statistic for sexual orientation because the Statistics Canada census doesn’t ask about it, but polls estimate that around 5% of Canadians identify as LGBTQ). Would members of oppressed or minority groups living in a riding with a white, straight, Christian male MP just be out of luck?

No — at least, not if the system works the way it’s intended to. While no Member of Parliament could presume to directly and fully know the lived experiences of any member of their constituency (regardless of the identity of the MP and the constituent in question), each MP is expected to hear the voices and concerns of their constituents and work in Parliament on their behalf.

This is why you often see MPs and election candidates conversing with citizens in the riding: constituents share their experiences, priorities, and concerns with politicians, who then shape their platforms and perspectives based on what their constituency wants as well as their own personal and party stances. In this way, a white MP who has never been negatively affected by institutional racism  can seek out statistics and individual anecdotes from within the community, get an idea of the scope of the problem, and start pushing for possible solutions in Parliament.

Of course, a problem like institutional racism isn’t confined to just one riding in Canada, which is where another important component of the Canadian government comes into play: Parliamentary committees. These committees, composed of MPs, are designed to research specific national issues (both through statistics and expert consultation) and provide reports on these issues to the entire House of Commons so that each Member can be appraised of the details of an issue with which they may not otherwise be familiar.

Take a moment to scroll back up and reread the argument in that third paragraph, and then revisit my admittedly cursory summary of the Canadian system of representative democracy. In this system, our elected officials are tasked with representing us by discussing and even voting on legislation for issues they may never have faced themselves, including racism. This would be the case even if the diversity in Canada were perfectly mirrored by our MPs. To say that these MPs (or anyone else, for that matter) cannot have a valid perspective on an issue without having personally experienced it themselves — regardless of how much statistical and anecdotal evidence they have gathered from those who have experienced it — is to say that our current system of government does not and fundamentally cannot work.

A representative democracy like ours is predicated on the belief that representatives can effectively work in the interests of their constituents even if they haven’t shared all of their experiences. If you absolutely disagree with this belief, then you might just have to start a revolution, because this style of government can’t offer what you’re looking for. The only way to ensure that the discussion and voting on a proposed piece of legislation directly incorporates all individual voices and lived experiences is to go back to the direct democracy option, which is functionally impossible.

I should note that our system shouldn’t and doesn’t give MPs (or anyone else) the right to claim to know anyone else’s personal experiences. A common turn-of-phrase when discussing race relations suggests that people in positions of power or privilege should “speak up, not over,” so as to draw attention to problems and possible solutions without drowning out the voices of those affected by the problems, and I think that this principle is very applicable in this case. Think of Members of Parliament as “megaphones,” hearing the evidence and personal experiences from within their constituency and using their position of political power to bring those problems to the forefront and work on a solution.

It should also be noted that MPs don’t always do a great job of representing the interests and concerns of their constituencies, but I would contend that this is more an issue with individuals or parties rather than the system as a whole. Plus, the voters very clearly have the power to change this situation when the next election rolls around. Members of Parliament who don’t represent their constituency will quickly find themselves out of office, and their successors will hopefully have learned a valuable lesson.

Speaking of elections, this idea does have some practical implications for a citizen looking to make an informed and effective choice when they go to vote, and they’re pretty simple. For one thing, you should contact the candidates in your riding and ask them how they plan to deal with the issues that are important to you, including institutional racism. Politely inform them of how important it is that changes be made. Quote statistics or refer to the personal experiences of yourself or someone you know. If fighting institutional racism wasn’t a key part of their platforms before, it might be afterward, and you’ll have officially and tangibly made your voice heard in Canadian politics. Depending on their answers to your questions, you’ll probably get a pretty good idea of who you want to vote for, too.

In short, be an active and informed participant in our political system. Yes, it may have its failings at the moment. For one thing, we’re still definitely not at that ideal governmental representation of the demographics of our population. And don’t even get me started on Stephen Harper. But believing in that idea up in the third paragraph (and, by extension, believing in the potential of our government) leads to the conclusion that we can make positive changes, and we can make them within the bounds of our current system. We as citizens just have to step up, get involved in the process, and start pushing for change to happen.

A few closing remarks. Obviously, at any level, some perspectives on societal issues like racism will be flawed. Some will (deservedly) be met with condemnation for ignoring evidence, functioning primarily on emotional or reactionary principles, or even being openly hostile. In each of these cases, it is important to note that a perspective should only be discredited because of problems with the perspective itself, not because of the identities of its proponents. This applies at every level of discussion and to every issue of importance.

In any case, I’m certainly looking forward to October 19th, when I have my first chance to vote in a federal election, and I encourage all other Canadians to participate in the democratic process. After all, this is our best opportunity to tell our MPs what we want and make our voices heard in Parliament, both indirectly, through meeting the candidates, and directly, by voting. I believe that our politicians can act responsibly and effectively to further our interests as individuals and as a society, but only if we make sure they know what those interests are.

I guess I’ll just have to hope that nobody starts a revolution between now and October.

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