By Ricky Hon
I think back to those eternal words, “I have a dream,” spoken by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963, and reflect on whether that dream has been realized. It doesn’t take much reflection to come to know it has not. As February is Black History Month, a reflection on race and racism is quite timely. Indeed, Black History Month has developed into a time when we can examine broader issues concerning racism and discrimination for all people.
The Canadian Race Relations Foundation recently published a study on perceptions of racism in four countries — Canada, Spain, Germany and the United States. What struck me from the findings was that Canadians are pretty much divided on whether racism is on the rise or not — 46 per cent of the participants responded “yes” while 45 per cent said “no.” Even more striking was that those under 35 were least likely to think that racism was on the rise (only 38 per cent of those ages 18-24 said “yes” and only 37 per cent of those ages 25-34 said “yes”).
Of course, I don’t have all the answers for why the study results are what they are, but I think I can offer a partial analysis. There have been a handful of people belonging to minorities rising to high public offices recently. The most notable example here is Barack Obama to the office of president in the United States in 2008. More recently, and much closer to home, the election of Naheed Nenshi to the mayor’s office in Calgary in 2010. Linking this back to the results of the CRRF’s findings, it is striking when we consider that young people were perhaps the most instrumental, or at least the most vocal, supporters for Obama and Nenshi in their respective campaigns. We must be aware, however, that there is a tendency on the part of all people to be lulled into a sense of false comfort and complacency when such events occur. If anything, I think the CRRF’s findings mean that we should be just as, or even more vigilant about racism in Canada and abroad.
This false sense of comfort is a serious problem. Just because a person belonging to a minority gets elected to public office doesn’t necessarily mean that life for all, most, or even some people belonging to that group gets better. At most, what can be said to happen when this person is elected to high public office is that the individual in question has broken down a barrier — a glass ceiling. In doing this, other people of that group might have an easier time in the future when it comes to ascending to public office. But even this may not happen if the election proves only to be an idiosyncratic or isolated event in history.
My aim is largely a cautionary one — a warning to those who think we can sweep issues having to do with racism and discrimination under the carpet or to those who think that racism and discrimination are things of the past. Indeed, racism is an ongoing struggle. On Feb. 11, Quebec Conservative MP Steven Blaney voiced his desire to take away the right to vote from those who would refuse to uncover their faces — reviving the debate in Quebec over “accommodation” for our Muslim brothers and sisters. Or how about the case of Mehwish Ali, a Muslim woman and aesthetician in Markham, Ontario, who claims she was fired for wearing her hijab at work? Surely, if we truly lived in an era in which racism and discrimination didn’t exist, we wouldn’t have these kinds of situations.
Because these kinds of situations are still occurring, we should be especially careful about being complacent whenever a person belonging to a minority is elected to public office. When this happens, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the quality of life for oppressed people gets any better. It doesn’t necessarily mean that we are any closer, as a society, toward realizing King’s vision of racial equality. When we get lulled into a false sense of comfort, it only makes things worse for those people already at a disadvantage due to socio-cultural and institutionalized discrimination and racism. We owe it to all people who are disadvantaged in this manner to be just as, or even more, vigilant about racism.