By PATRICK HUNTER
There is an underlying assumption about the Black community in Toronto, in many other places in Canada and in much of the rest of the world, for that matter. That assumption is commonplace among the majority – the White majority – of any given northern country. That assumption is that the Black community is largely a criminal element, with some exceptions – instead of the other way around.
This “underlying assumption” can be categorized as a stereotype which the Oxford dictionary defines as “a widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing”.
It is the kind of assumption that leads to behaviours such as White women clutching more tightly to their purses if a Black male is close by, or trailing a Black person around a store. It is also the kind of assumption that says if a group of young Black men are standing together they probably belong to a gang, while a similar group of White young men are just boys having fun.
These are simplistic but real examples which manifest themselves in other areas and opportunities within our society. Regrettably, sometimes it is a self-fulfilling prophecy and recent shootings of young Black men in our community by other young Black men seem to combine to reinforce that perception.
This past weekend the Toronto Star published another report, based on information gathered through the freedom of information act that demonstrates quite candidly that the Toronto Police Service appears to be influenced by this stereotype. This is not the first time that the Star has revealed this tendency within the Service. In 2002, the newspaper revealed the nature of racial profiling – that young Black men not only faced a significantly high proportion of “stops”, compared to White young men, but that this attitude permeates the justice system in which young Black men are more likely to receive harsher punishment and other conditions compared to White young men when offences and conditions are similar.
The Star also exposed to the rest of the wider community the existence of “carding” – the process by which information is collected about individuals, particularly young Black men, which is kept in this database. The remarkable aspect of this data collection is that the individuals were not necessarily involved in any criminal activity, but suggests that they may be.
In a recent editorial board meeting with Share, Deputy Chief Peter Sloly was at pains to move the discussion and the nomenclature from “carding”. In his interpretation, and what he wanted opinion influencers to accept, was that these “contacts” were, first, a way of recording why the contact was made and the outcome, supposedly to eliminate doubts of unreasonable stops.
Secondly, it is part of the “intelligence gathering” operations which the police carry out so that if a criminal activity was later reported in the area, these contacts could possibly be witnesses.
This kind of explanation is a very strong reminder of former chief Julian Fantino’s attempt to redefine “racial profiling” into an image that was more palatable to civil rights activists. It did not work then, and it does not now.
On the other side of this relationship, however, is the media itself. While I am grateful that the Star has done our community a tremendous service by revealing these deep dark not-so-secret activities by the police, it and other media outlets also share the blame for the continuing stereotype of the Black community. The coverage of crime and criminal activity appear to dominate within those areas of the city where the population appears to be largely Black. By implication and the use of pictures and the tendency to latch on to concepts like “priority neighbourhoods” all find their way into the reportage and thus support and colour the negative image.
More and more, in the United States, the electronic media will include African-Americans in analyses from politics to business to science. There is a growing recognition that African-Americans are strongly involved in all sectors and have developed expertise in their areas of specialization. They have also discovered that these experts are articulate and can provide “colourless” colour commentary on issues that are not necessarily related only to race and sports.
Canada’s electronic media has not yet discovered this as a trend. Occasionally, there may be commentators on sports or incidents that have a racial overtone but rarely anything else that deals with the economy or international affairs. Believe it or not, there is a considerably large group of academics across the country who are of African descent and are involved in the training of our future leaders. Yet, their expertise is rarely, if ever, called on to provide current analysis of issues.
What is the likelihood of an African Canadian being named Minister of Foreign Affairs, let alone Prime Minister?
My point here is that the Black community has been stuck within certain boundaries where one would easily get the notion that there are no African Canadians. It is still not unusual to be asked “where are you from?” as if the idea of a Black Canadian-born individual is still a rarity.
We have a police service that has two persons of African descent as deputy police chiefs. I will give them the benefit of the doubt that they are trying to have this massive ship turned around. At the core of the problem, it would seem, is that distinguishing policing from good community relations continue to be an elusive reality. Until there is a realization that rights are, and should be, indistinguishable – a fact that is not solely a failing of the police but many of our institutions, including government, we will be faced with this boundary for a long time to come – and it is not from a lack of members of the Black communities and others trying to remove it.