While a Black president resides in the White House in the United States and legal segregation may be a thing of the past, racial separation persists and colour and race are still pivotal factors shaping race relations in North America, says University of Toronto Centre of Criminology doctoral student, Akwasi Owusu-Bempah.
In his keynote address at the Toronto Police Service’s 18th annual International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (IDERD) event last week, Owusu-Bempah noted that racism still has a negative impact on the lives of racialized people and the legacy of conquest continues to provide a relatively small few with social, political and economic privileges.
“The continued belief in racial difference is embedded in our individual psyches and institutionalized in organizational policies and practices,” said Owusu-Bempah who earned his undergraduate degree at Carleton University and his Masters at the University of Toronto. “It is interwoven into the very fabric of our society and it is now, for the most part, hidden, unspoken and elusive.
“We cannot forget the injustices of the past and we cannot deny the realities of the present. We need to keep these in mind so that we do not make the same mistakes again…We must not think of ourselves as helpless and we must not sit back and tolerate these inequalities in silence.”
The United Nations IDERD is observed on March 21. On that day in 1960, a large crowd of Black South Africans assembled in front of the Sharpeville police station to protest the pass laws imposed by the apartheid government. The pass laws were statues requiring Blacks to carry a reference (pass) book with them when they traveled outside their homes.
The protest escalated into violence, resulting in the police killing 69 protestors – most of whom were shot in the back – and wounding 180 in what has come to be known as the Sharpeville Massacre.
“Today is not just a day when we stop to remember the massacre in Sharpeville that took so many lives of people fighting for their human rights, but it’s also a day that we start to think not just about a common ground on which we stand, but the different paths that have led us to this common ground and the choices we make as to how we move forward together as individuals in a society that is truly building one of the most unique communities in the world,” said Toronto Police Service board member, Councilor Adam Vaughan.
“Today is about remembering the past with intelligence and looking forward to tomorrow with a more creative approach to how we include each other in a community and how we build a city together.”
Board chair Alok Mukherjee said that eliminating racism and building an equitable police service are at the top of the organization’s priorities.
“We believe that there must be an absolute intolerance of any systemic policies, practices or procedures as well as of any individual expressions or actions that have an adverse impact on any member of our society because of race, colour, ethnicity, culture, language, nationality or religion,” he said.
“We believe also that we must include people from different backgrounds at all levels of the police service so that members of all the communities in this city are full participants in the work of this organization. And we believe as well that all members of the public are entitled, at all times, to courteous, fair and equitable services from us with full recognition of and respect for their background and identity.”
Mukherjee submitted a comprehensive policy on human rights and accommodation for board approval last week. He said the proposed policy, which requires the TPS to develop a human rights strategy, is a concrete demonstration of the board’s determination to ensure that racism in all its forms and other types of discrimination have no place in the way the organization treats people and conducts its business.
The theme of this year’s celebration was “Embracing Diversity Through Inclusiveness.”
Deputy Chief Keith Forde remarked that the theme was fitting because diversity has been a top priority for the organization ever since the appointment of Chief William Blair in April 2005.
The TPS was last week recognized as one of Canada’s 45 Best Diversity Employers for the third straight year.
“They say that leadership begins at the top and that couldn’t be a more appropriate statement,” Forde said. “We are fortunate to have a chief that, simply put, gets it.”