While there are a myriad of ways in which one could define racism, most definitions describe a type of discrimination that originates from the belief in racialism and a racial hierarchy. Racialism is based on the claim that the human species can be divided into discrete biological groupings (races). Traditionally, racialism entailed the view that races are natural and fixed subdivisions of humans, each with its own distinct and variable cultural characteristics and capacity for developing civilizations. Stemming from the belief that races are discrete biological groups with distinct cultural characteristics determined by their genetic makeup, racism can be characterized as prejudicial thoughts or behaviour toward members of particular racial groups based on their perceived biological superiority or inferiority.
Many scholars consider racialism and racism to be at that heart of the eugenics movement, since early eugenicists such as Francis Galton clearly sought to control the flow of undesirable traits from the lower races to the higher through race-mixing (miscegenation). For example, Galton wrote in his Inquiries into Human Faculty and its Development (1883:17), “the science of improving the stock, which is by no means confined to questions of judicious mating, but which especially in the case of man, takes cognisance of all influences that tend in however remote a degree to give to the more suitable races or strains of blood a better chance of prevailing speedily over the less suitable than they otherwise would have had.”
Although eugenics was scientific in nature and sought to promote higher reproduction of people with desired traits (positive eugenics) and reduced reproduction of people with less-desired or undesired traits (negative eugenics), many eugenicists would become advocates for anti-miscegenation laws as a form of social control to prevent the degeneration of the higher (e.g., white) races in the 20th century.
Since the 1950’s, a number of anthropologists, geneticists, sociologists, psychologists, and others have claimed that race is a biological fiction, since humans do not form discrete biological groups. This notion has been supported in official statements by organizations such as the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the American Anthropological Association, and the American Association of Physical Anthropologists. Despite the fact that the vast majority of researchers who study human variation agree that humans cannot be divided into biological races, racial discrimination is a persistent reality, since the ideas of race and racialism have been so deeply ingrained in historical scientific and popular understandings of human biology, as well as racism continuing to take on new forms.
For example, while traditional racialism was typological in that it was based on the premise that races were fixed biological units, modern notions of group biology tend to refer to biological ‘populations’ rather than races. According to Gannett (2001:S490), rather than eliminating race and racism from scientific discourse, this conceptual shift has simply given rise to a different type of racial discrimination:
“Population thinkers” can be what we might call “statistical racists.” “Population thinking” precludes stereotyping of the form “person A is a certain way because all individuals belonging to that group are that way” and the differential treatment of entire groups. But “population thinking” is consistent with the stereotyping of individuals based on the statistical properties of the group. Such stereotyping takes the form: “person A is probably/likely/may be a certain way because most/many/some individuals belonging to that group are that way.” “Statistical racism” is also manifested with respect to entire groups. “Population thinking” and its attention to statistical differences among groups – differences in mean trait values or the range of values exhibited for traits – could be used to justify differential representation of certain racial/ethnic groups in various occupations or educational groups and to challenge programs like affirmative action. It is also conceivable that arguments that appeal to statistical differences among populations in the frequencies of genes associated with particular dispositional traits could be used to sanction differential social treatment – for example, “racial profiling” by police.
Obviously, although race and racialism formed the historical basis for racist thought, racism continues to thrive even in the absence of the race concept itself. For example, in during the 1990’s, researchers such as Herrnstein and Murray (The Bell Curve) and Philippe Rushton (Race, Evolution, and Behaviour) claimed that are statistical differences in social behaviours that can be attributed to race, demonstrating patterns a significant differences between Asians, Whites, and Blacks, in such traits as sexual behaviour and intelligence. These claims were not widely supported by other researchers and the results are not considered to be scientific, but were widely cited by white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups, particularly in North America. This serves as an example of how new forms of racism are emerging by masked inherently racialist theories in racially neutral evolutionary language in an attempt to make them more socially acceptable.
Although biological notions of race have largely been discredited, the social construction of race remains a potent force in society, fuelled by outdated social attitudes and language, as well as misdirected pseudo-scientific studies. The process of social construction of race is termed “racialization,” which has been defined as “the process by which societies construct races as real, different and unequal in ways that matter to economic, political and social life” (Commission on Systemic Racism in the Ontario Criminal Justice System, 1995: 40). Despite the fact that races do not appear to be real, the social construction of race has real consequences on the human rights and lives of marginalized groups and individuals.
According to the Ontario Human Rights Commission (2005), modern racism exists in three different forms: (1) individual, (2) institutional or systemic, and (3) societal (also described as cultural/ideological).
At the individual level, racism may be expressed in an overt manner but also through everyday behaviour that involves many small events in the interaction between people. This is often described as “everyday racism” and is often very subtle in nature.
At the institutional or systemic level, racism may be evident in organizational and government policies, practices, and procedures and “normal ways of doing things” that may directly or indirectly, consciously or unwittingly, promote, sustain, or entrench differential advantage for some people and disadvantage for others.
At the societal level, racism may be evident in cultural and ideological expressions that underlie and sustain dominant values and beliefs. A whole range of concepts, ideas, images, and institutions provide the framework of interpretation and meaning for racialized thought in society. It is communicated and reproduced through mechanisms of cultural transmission such as the media, schools, universities, religious doctrines and practices, art, music, and literature. This form of racism is maintained through socialization as children begin to absorb these beliefs and values at an early age.
Racial discrimination and human rights in Canada The Canadian government first recognized Multiculturalism as federal policy in 1971, and became the first country to recognize multiculturalism in its constitution of 1982. Canada remains one of the few countries in the world with a bill of rights that recognizes education, language, Aboriginal peoples, and equality among men and women.
Despite its recent history of tolerance and the promotion of equality and diversity, Canada has a long history of racial discrimination and overtly racist laws and policies. Some examples include (from OHRC 2005):
• The Indian Act of 1876 gave the federal government control over traditional aboriginal political structures, landholding patterns, resource and economic development, and most other aspects of Aboriginal peoples’ lives, based on the widespread belief that they were inferior and incapable of governing themselves. Aboriginal children were forcibly removed from their homes and communities and sent to residential schools operated by missionary societies where they were forbidden to speak their language, to practice their traditions and customs and to learn about their history.
• Between 1628 and the early 1800s, approximately 3000 Africans were brought to Canada and forced into slavery. In 1833, the British Parliament's Emancipation Act abolished slavery in all parts of the Empire, including Upper Canada (now Ontario), but it had a lasting legacy. African Canadians were barred from schools, churches, restaurants, hospitals, and public transportation. They were restricted to menial and low-paying job. Many African Canadians lived in segregated communities in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Ontario. Residential segregation was perpetuated through racially restrictive covenants attached to deeds and leases. Segregated schools existed in Canada as late as 1964.
• Chinese labourers were recruited in the 1880s to perform dangerous tasks involved in the building of the national railway through the Rocky Mountains. After being subjected to deplorable working conditions, once their labour was no longer needed, they were seen as a threat to society and subjected to intense racial discrimination. In an attempt to limit Chinese immigration, the 1885 Chinese Immigration Act imposed a $50 “head tax” on all Chinese persons entering Canada. In 1903, this amount was raised to $500, which was a prohibitively large amount of money. In 1872, Chinese Canadians in British Columbia were denied the right to vote in provincial and municipal elections. Elsewhere in Canada, Chinese Canadians were also subjected to discriminatory laws and policies with respect to property ownership, business operations, and the ability to enter certain professions.
• During World War II, approximately 23,000 Japanese Canadians living on the west coast of British Columbia were sent to relocation and detention camps in isolated areas in the interior of British Columbia, southern Alberta, Manitoba and northern Ontario. Japanese Canadians were stripped of their property, businesses, and savings. Towards the end of the war, Japanese Canadians were threatened with further expulsion. They were given the option for “dispersal” to towns east of the Rocky Mountains, or outright “repatriation” to Japan. The Canadian government did not release them until 1947 and it took a further two years before they were able to resettle on the west coast.
• Jewish Canadians have also been subjected to anti-Semitism and legalized discrimination. "None is too many" was the response given by a high level Canadian government official when asked how many Jews should be accepted as immigrants, at the time of the Nazi persecution of Jews. Signs posted along the Toronto beaches stated “No Dogs or Jews Allowed.” Many hotels and resorts had policies prohibiting Jews as guests. There were restrictions on where Jewish persons could live or buy property.
Today, Canadian citizens are provided protection from racial discrimination (including national or ethnic origin and colour) and other “prohibited grounds” such as sex, disability, or religion by virtue of the Canadian Human Rights Act, which was enacted in 1977 to prohibit discriminatory practices by employers and/or service providers that fall within federal jurisdiction (each province and territory has its own anti-discrimination law that applies to activities that are not federally regulated), including:
• Employment: A person cannot be denied a job, or released from employment, due to some personal characteristic, such as race or disability, that does not affect job performance or that can be accommodated.
• Equal pay: Persons must be paid the same for jobs of equal value. In other words, an employer cannot pay a female employee less than a male employee for performing a job of equal value.
• Provision of goods and services: Businesses cannot refuse to provide a good or service to an individual simply on the grounds of some personal characteristic. In example, a bank cannot ask a married woman for her spouse’s signature when applying for a loan, on the grounds that she is a woman.
The CHRA also prohibits the communication of hate messages, which is a more pure form of racism. This includes messages that encourage discrimination, hatred of a group, or which involve comments that are demeaning to a group.
Although the concept of race has been discredited, the prohibited ground of “race” in human rights codes federally and provincially continues to be important to the discussion of racism and racial discrimination in Canada based on the persistent reality of race and racialism as social constructs.
Clement, D., Silver, W., Trottier, D., 2012, “The Evolution of Human Rights in Canada.” Retrieved from: http://www.chrc-ccdp.ca/sites/default/files/ehrc_edpc-eng.pdf
Commission on Systemic Racism in the Ontario Criminal Justice System , 1995, “Report of the Commission on Systemic Racism in the Ontario Criminal Justice System.” Retrieved from: https://openlibrary.org/books/OL582562M/Report_of_the_Commission_on_Systemic_Racism_in_the_Ontario_Criminal_Justice_System
Frideres, J.S., 2006, “Racism,” in The Canadian Encyclopedia. Retrieved from: http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/racism/
Galton, F., 1883, Inquiries into Human Faculty and its Development. New York: E.P. Dutton & Co. Available at http://galton.org/books/human-faculty/>
Gannett, L, 2001, “Racism and Human Genome Diversity Research: The Ethical Limits of ‘Population Thinking,’” Philosophy of Science (Proceedings) 68:S479-492.
Makarenko, J., 2008, “The Canadian Human Rights Act: Introduction to Canada’s Federal Human Rights Legislation.” Available at http://www.mapleleafweb.com/features/canadian-human-rights-act-introduction-canada-s-federal-human-rights-legislation>
Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC), 2005, “Policy and guidelines on racism and racial discrimination.”Available at http://www.ohrc.on.ca/sites/default/files/attachments/Policy_and_guidelines_on_racism_and_racial_discrimination.pdf>
Sussman, R., 2014, The Myth of Race: The Troubling Persistence of an Unscientific Idea. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
Turda, M., 2010, “Race, Science, and Eugenics in the Twentieth Century,” Pgs. 62-79 in A. Bashford and P. Levine (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of the History of Eugenics. New York: Oxford University Press.