The Black Experience Project – a quick review

By Patrick Hunter Wednesday April 09 2014 in Opinion
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I get very cynical when I hear that there is another report on the Black Community in Toronto. Reports on us could just about fill a library by themselves. They are often full of progressive and sympathetic discussions and conclusions about the hardships faced by our community with meaningful recommendations for action. Action however is very rarely taken. Thus, the cycle of study is renewed, coming up with many of the same conclusions and recommendations, couched differently perhaps, but still leaving the community no further ahead.


I recently received a copy of the final report on Phase 1 of what appears to be an ambitious research undertaking called the Black Experience Project. It is subtitled: A Greater Toronto Area Study capturing the lived experiences of a diverse community. “[It] aims to examine the Canadian Black experience as it applies to the GTA in order to investigate the extent to which members of this community face disproportionate socio-economic disparities, as well as to identify untapped strengths and capacity.”


If you find yourself asking the questions ‘why is this different? why is this ground-breaking research, as it bills itself?’ you will appreciate my cynicism.


There is one aspect, I guess, that may be considered ground-breaking – the list of founding partners undertaking this study does not identify direct funding support from any level of government. The listed partners include the Atkinson Charitable Foundation, The Environics Institute, The Diversity Institute at Ryerson University, The United Way of Toronto and the YMCA of Greater Toronto.


In other words, we can’t say that this is another government-funded report. We can however wonder, what new findings or what differences may be unearthed that were not previously identified but may be meaningful in this non-government report.


To be fair, and clear, this is a preliminary look at the report. I will take the time to go through it in more detail. It is also the report on Phase 1, the community engagement phase, of a three-phase project. So, judgement is somewhat reserved.


Participants in the community engagements discussions are not identified by name, although some of the pictures in the report include a few opinion leaders within the community. They are referred to as “trailblazers” – some identified as “elder trailblazers”.


There are a few noticeable points in the first instances of the document. There is what appears to me to be an almost deliberate avoidance of the mention of “racism” or “racial discrimination” in the discussion around context – unless it is within a quote from a “trailblazer”. Now, on the one hand, the decision to “talk around” racism and racial discrimination could have been taken to minimise an early dismissal of this being “another report about racism in the Black community”.


The problem for me with that decision is that it takes away a central role within the discussion. It is like saying that the enslavement of Africans and African descendants was purely economic. It takes away the specific aspect of African and African descendants being viewed as being much less than human.


To its credit, the report does spend some time elaborating on the concept of “a Black community”. In reality, there are many communities within the “Black community”, and they are as diverse as many other communities – perhaps, even moreso – according to Canadian or other country of origin, languages, culture and many other identifiers.


In less than a month, on May 4, we will mark the 22nd anniversary of what has been variously called, the “Yonge Street disturbance” or the “Yonge Street riots”. What started as a peaceful demonstration in solidarity with the disgust of African Americans with a justice system that acquitted Los Angeles police officers in the savage beating of Rodney King, turned nasty as anger with our own justice system and other factors boiled over. The then Bob Rae government asked Stephen Lewis to do a quick report on the root causes and provide some recommendations.


The “Dear Bob” letter that was the basis of the report was very instrumental in delivering many changes or undertakings that would have moved the yardsticks forward. Most of those initiatives were reversed or dropped with the subsequent election of Mike Harris and the Progressive Conservative government – the same party that is now headed up by Tim Hudak who, in many ways, appear to be emulating the Harris “wisdom”.


But while Lewis’ report was not the first in the long line of reports about Toronto’s Black community, it garnered a lot of attention – partly because it candidly named “anti-Black racism”. Since then, of course, we have seen the lineup of reports that go over the same issues with many of the same recommendations.


Finally, one other point that the Black Experience Project discusses that is remarkable, is the reversal of the thinking in the Black community at large with respect to disaggregated data collection. In the past, it was a very deep fear that the collection of such data would only serve to further brand the community negatively. Within the past few years, there is general recognition that these data, with appropriate safeguards, are needed to prove or substantiate the serious exclusion of people of African descent. Some policymaking areas are however still reluctant to do this.


We will see where this report goes, whether it adds anything significant to our knowledge and, more importantly, raises the level of advocacy and the pursuit of justice within our community.

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