When Ontario Education Minister Steven Lecce was blasted for having participated in an anti-Black slave auction as a university student, he became the second politician in recent history to be called out for a past act connected to anti-Black racism.
Once again, Black Canadians and their allies are expected to direct their votes away from politicians (and their political parties) because of anti-Black racist behaviour.
Politicians such as Trudeau and Lecce should apologize for anti-Black racism. However, political parties who share this information publicly during an election should be held equally responsible. Sharing this information to sway voter opinions during an election is insensitive at best, lending itself to anti-Black racism at worst.
It is a political tactic that does nothing to liberate Black Canadians. Instead, it creates a fixed meaning of anti-Black racism in Canada as an essential public concern only during election campaigns.
Instead of looking at anti-Black racism as a series of one-off historical moments, it should be identified as an ongoing systemic issue to be actively challenged and addressed.
Challenging systemic oppression
As a public scholar who looks at anti-colonialism, race, ethnicity and neoliberalism: I am driven to speak out against racial discrimination and related forms of oppression. I urge people to pursue the foundational knowledge required to build race-conscious, safe spaces for Black people in Canada.
On a personal level, I am a Black man who is a proud father of Black children. I am concerned that my children face constant exposure to anti-Black racism. This racism interrupts their social, economic, educational and political engagement in this country. As Robyn Maynard explains in her book, Policing Black Lives, Black children and youth are stripped of the concept of childhood purity afforded to white children, and are viewed by Eurocentric Canadian culture as immoral.
Sociologist Tamari Kitossa shows that the persistence of anti-Black racism creates an undeserved disadvantage for Black people, and results in uneven distribution of social justice. White supremacy relates Blackness to the evil and inhumane, while positioning white people as the opposite. This mechanism allows for the continued exploitation of Black people, while white and non-Black Canadians are prevented from empathizing and understanding the trauma of anti-Black racism.
In Canada, anti-Black racism can be traced back to the colonial period, where the nation was built on laws and policies that created segregation in education and employment.
Scholar George Sefa Dei urges Canadians to pursue understanding by closely examining power differentials, including examining the ascribed racial identity for Black Canadians that carries dangerous political stereotypes.
Canadians forgave PM
Lecce’s public apology for his anti-Black racist behaviour was not directed at Canadian Black communities. Instead, his apology broadly homogenized all races and was underscored with the assumption that all racialized people experience racism the same way.
In 2019, after news media reported that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau wore blackface while teaching at a Canadian private school, he was apologetic.
Despite this new public information, Trudeau was victorious in the 2019 and 2021 elections. Trudeau’s past anti-Black racist behaviour was not enough to convince Canadians to resist voting for him.
Many argued his expression of anti-Black racism happened years ago. That was enough for Canadians to forgive and move on with our lives.
Anti-Black racism as a tactic
The tactic of uncovering anti-Black racist “indiscretions” during an election campaign is an effort to villainize politicians while upholding a colour-blind version of racism.
American sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva says the failure to recognize colour-blind racism limits our understanding of racial problems, making it difficult to establish policies and practices needed to address racial tensions. At the same time, it functions to fix the public understanding of anti-Black racism in Canada as an alarm-sounder during highly publicized moments.
This tactic does nothing to ease the concerns of Black Canadian communities and instead sustains a public image of Black Canadians as deserving of continuous re-exposure to their trauma. Canadian scholar Philip Howard argues that the failure to address the full continuum of anti-Black racism serves to sustain white Eurocentric Canadian politics, policies and laws. As such, Black Canadians are at risk of continued social oppression with no end in sight.
When anti-Black racism is seen as worthy of acknowledgement and discussion only during an election — it is quickly forgotten after the election’s winner is declared.
Black Canadians, casualty of political wars
Black Canadians continue to be casualties of the political war between major political parties.
Politicians have few policies designed to protect Black children and Black Canadians remain underrepresented within all levels of the Canadian government. Despite loud calls to do so, Canada’s ongoing failure to address anti-Black racism and provide a sense of belonging to Black Canadians is seldom explored. And so the issue of anti-Black racism plagues Black Canadians as it did their ancestors.
Canada’s tolerance of anti-Black racism results in repeated apologies from those in power, without practical solutions to address anti-Black racism.
Francis Darko, a Ph.D student in anthropology at the University of Manitoba contributed to this article.
Warren Clarke does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.