Black Lives Matter? Multiculturalism & Race

This post originally appeared in Now Magazine:

The shooting death of Andrew Loku by a Toronto police officer on July 5 is hauntingly similar to the killing of Albert Johnson by police in 1979.

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The shootings are separated by nearly 40 years, but both men were shot in their homes on a Sunday morning. Both were wielding household objects, Loku a hammer, Johnson garden shears. Both were black. And in both cases mental illness was cited as a contributing factor in their deaths.

Much has changed in the decades between these events, but Canada has yet to confront the deep-rooted anti-black racism that continues to make these killings possible.

In Loku’s case, it remains to be seen if police will be charged. (The province’s Special Investigations Unit has identified one subject officer and five witness officers). History suggests they won’t be.

Police shootings of black men follow a typical pattern: police kill a black man; civic leaders express full confidence in the officers involved; internal investigations confirm that the officers acted according to protocol; officers suggest the victim’s character, erratic behaviour or mental state forced them to act; editorials describe the incident as a terrible tragedy that must be avoided in the future. Repeat.

Police claimed Johnson was shot while descending his staircase, whereas Johnson’s daughter and ballistics experts said he was kneeling. Police claimed they were called to the home because of Johnson’s erratic behaviour, but Johnson was also a victim of repeated police harassment. He’d been hospitalized after a previous encounter with the police and went so far as to tell the Ontario Human Rights Commission that the police were trying to kill him. Ten days later, they did.

Two officers, Walter Cargnelli and William Inglis, were charged with manslaughter. But as the trial progressed, the jury’s attention focused less on the actions of police and more on Johnson’s mental health. Both officers were acquitted.

Could the police have acted differently, or was Johnson so crazy, so uncontrollable, so black, that his death was, in columnist Christie Blatchford’s words at the time, “almost unavoidable”?

As Dudley Laws put it: “Albert Johnson was on trial. The police were never on trial. It is a disgrace.”

These are not unusual tragedies. After Johnson there was Lester Donaldson and Raymond Lawrence and Albert Moses. And more recently Michael Eligon. The real terror is that their deaths are regular occurrences, the predictable result of our society’s refusal to acknowledge its racist history and continued devaluing of black lives.

Our multicultural model is inadequate to the task of helping Canadians understand the forms of power and racism that lead to the repeated killing of black men because it focuses on culture and heritage at the expense of race and history.

While Canadian multiculturalism has given us a vocabulary for thinking about diversity, it needs to be combined with a philosophy of anti-racism that acknowledges the particularly pernicious forms of racism that target black people.

Racism is a phenomenon that overwhelmingly targets black people.

When Stephen Lewis was appointed by Ontario premier Bob Rae as the government’s adviser on race relations, he insisted that “what we are dealing with, at root, and fundamentally, is anti-black racism. While it is obviously true that every visible minority community experiences the indignities and wounds of systemic discrimination, it is the black community which is the focus.”

More recently, Canadian multicultural theorists Keith Banting and Will Kymlicka write that “anti-black racism is qualitatively different from that suffered by other visible minorities.” Kymlicka goes so far as to say that other minority groups have become successful “precisely by gaining some distance from blacks. They have come to be seen as ‘respectable,’ like whites, in contrast to the ‘unruly’ blacks.”

The language of multiculturalism, with its vocabulary of equality in diversity, conceals this key aspect of racism in Canada. We must add to our claims of cultural diversity policies and programs that promote racial justice. We celebrate the cultural and the culinary at the expense of knowing our very real histories of racism, discrimination and genocide.

We have seen this with First Nations.

The 1969 Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism stressed that “everything possible must be done to help the native populations preserve their cultural heritage.” In the same year, the government’s White Paper on First Nations people insisted, “Rich in folklore, in art forms and in concepts of community life, the Indian cultural heritage can grow and expand further to enrich the general society.”

These gestures toward heritage were interpreted as government sleight of hand designed to focus on long houses instead of land claims.

Harold Cardinal and the Indian Association of Alberta responded decisively to the White Paper: “Justice requires that the special history, rights and circumstances of Indian People be recognized.”

“History” was the key term then, and is now.

Movements such as Idle No More, Black Lives Matter and the struggle for justice for missing and murdered aboriginal women have begun to insist on the importance of history and anti-racism to understanding Canada.

The police shooting of Loku is part of the long history of anti-black racism in Canada. Only by understanding the particular barriers and discrimination experienced by black people in Canada can we change our present.

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