What is racism and when does it become “systemic”?
Racial discrimination is an experience that occurs when people are treated differently because of their skin colour or ethnicity. Ontario’s Anti-Racism Directorate defines racism as a set of ideas, beliefs, or practices that establish, maintain, or perpetuate the superiority or dominance of one racial group over another. Systemic racism is when those racial biases are rooted in social policy, procedure and practice.
Racial bias can exist within institutions and materially benefit some racial groups while putting other racial groups at a disadvantage.
Some examples of systemic racism include:
- Labour market discrimination and the wage gap between different racial groups.
- Streaming racialized students into applied instead of academic programs.
- Over-representation of Black, Indigenous, and people of colour in the criminal justice system.
Systemic racism is a reality that many people face today, but it can be difficult to pinpoint sometimes. This is because the history of racist practices and white supremacy is deeply woven into our social norms, social policy and everyday life. In Canada, institutional bias disadvantages BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Colour) communities. Black and Indigenous communities face unique barriers because, unlike other racial groups in Canada, theirs is rooted in slavery and genocide. Anti-Black racism and anti-Indigenous racism today is informed by these histories and continues to affect Black and Indigenous communities.
Systemic racism in income inequality
Wage discrimination happens when people are paid different rates for the same work because of their race or gender. Using the 2016 Census, the CCPA showed that racialized women earn $0.59 for every dollar that non-racialized men earn. Employers can get away with these practices when they are not held accountable by existing law or policies.
Other factors also contribute to wage gaps between different racial groups. Canadian employers and accreditation offices often undervalue overseas education and experience. When highly skilled immigrants’ experience and training are not recognized, their employment options become limited and they must settle for low-paying jobs.
Racialized people are more likely to reside in low-income communities when they do not have equal access to good paying jobs. It is also difficult for people who believe they were unjustly overlooked for a job opportunity or denied housing to get justice because fighting racism in court can be costly and time consuming.
Some evidence that Black people in Ontario are disadvantaged by systemic anti-Black racism through income equality are:
- 21.3% of people of colour are considered low-income, compared to only 11.5% of non-racialized Ontarians
- Black Canadians have a 12.5% unemployment rate, compared to 5.7% unemployment rates for other visible minorities
- First-generation Black Canadians make an average income of $37,000 compared to the average income of $50,000 that new immigrants that aren’t visible minorities make
Low-income communities are often over-policed and lack funding for adequate education, healthcare, and other public services. Many housing practices, like asking for large deposits, multiple references, credit score checks, etc., make it difficult for new immigrants or those living paycheck to paycheck to move into better funded communities.
Because of discrimination in employment and housing, low-income communities are made up largely of Black people, Indigenous people, and people of colour.
Systemic racism in education
Schools in low-income communities are underfunded and often lack resources like up-to-date textbooks, technology, and extracurricular programming. In addition, kids from low-income families may carry the additional burden of food insecurity, needing to care for siblings, having to work from a young age out of necessity, etc.
These circumstances often lead to racialized students struggling in school, but instead of getting the help they need to succeed, these students are instead streamed into non-academic programs. Racial biases from educators can also be factors into this streamlining. In Peel schools, 21.7% of applied stream students are Black, but less than 2% of students in AP and IB streams are Black.
Some evidence that Black students in Ontario are disadvantaged by systemic anti-Black racism in public and higher education are:
- The high school graduation rate for Black students in Ontario was 69% in 2015, much lower than the 84% graduation rate for white students
- At the Toronto District School Board, Black students made up only 12% of the population but accounted for 48% of expulsions
- Children of families from low-income levels are half as likely to pursue higher education as those from top income levels
The reason students from low-income backgrounds are less likely to go to university or college is because tuition is extremely unaffordable. On top of that, they may not have the academic credentials they need because of the lower quality of education they receive and processes like streaming.
Kids who grow up in low-income communities are disproportionately Black, Indigenous and/or people of colour. Kids in low-income communities have fewer opportunities and face more danger, creating barriers to success.
Systemic racism in policing
People in low-income communities, especially visible minorities and particularly Black people, are more likely to be criminalized from a very young age.
High schools and even middle schools across Ontario are patrolled by School Resource Officers (SROs) -- who are often armed police. A police officer has a different mandate than educators and counsellors, and therefore are less likely to diffuse and de-escalate situations involving youth. When community advocacy led to the removal of SROs from the Toronto District School Board, suspensions dropped by 24% and expulsions dropped by 53%. Whenever possible, youth deserve the opportunity to learn from their mistakes with the support of educators instead of being punished for them.
Crime rates are higher in low-income, racialized neighborhoods due to poverty and over-policing. Black people are more likely to be targeted by police -- whether or not they commit a crime. Discriminatory practices like targeted carding has led to the over-representation of Black people in the criminal justice system.
Some evidence that Black people in Ontario are policed at much higher rates from a very young age are:
- Peel invests $9 million per year to staff public schools with armed officers, known as School Resource Officers (SRO)
- Black people are only 3.5% of the Canadian population, but make up 10% of the prison population
- Black people make up only 8.8% of Toronto’s population, but are targets for 41.1% of cases involving excessive police force
When police witness minor discretions like cannabis possession, driving offences, trespassing, etc., they have the option to ignore, verbally warn the offender or charge them. Due to racial bias, police are more likely to approach, charge, and use excessive force against Black people than white people and other racial groups. Police are also protected by laws like the Police Act, which make it difficult for police to be held accountable when they commit crimes.
Once caught up in the criminal justice system, Black people also face barriers to getting fair representation. If they come from a low-income background, they simply cannot afford adequate legal aid. The over-representation of Black people in Canadian prisons is informed by racial bias in the criminal justice system, including by lawyers, juries, and judges.
Racial biases exist in every community and need to be actively addressed on an ongoing basis.
Systemic racism is the result of many years of those racial biases taking root in policy and practice. Today, it looks like Black people, Indigenous people and people of colour being denied equal access tol job opportunities, healthcare, adequate housing, legal defense, and more.
Racism, especially when it is so deeply and institutionally entrenched, robs people not only of their dignity but their lives. Challenging systemic racism will require an organized, collective struggle -- led and informed by the people who are the most affected -- to challenge the institutions, legislations, decision-makers, and general consciousness of our society.