Readers will be familiar with the examples of police relations with Aboriginal people and Black Canadians offered by Elizabeth Comack, a sociologist and author at the University of Manitoba who researches issues relevant to innercity communities. Contrary to investigations that conclude racism was not a factor in the shooting deaths by police officers of Aboriginal peoples and Black Canadians, Elizabeth Comack demonstrates unequivocally that “race” and racism are at the heart of these tragedies. Comack argues that law enforcement activity among Aboriginal peoples and Black Canadians must be considered as racialized policing. More than one-off events, race and racism have become normal ways of structuring relations between police and marginalized communities.
The claim that “race had nothing to do with this” contradicts the historical context of colonialism, poverty and social exclusion that mark social and systemically constructed racism. The most public of these events have been reported in news stories, government inquiries, inquests, commissions, media debates, editorials, talk shows, formal research studies, and papers and books by academics and journalists.
A short list of the “problems of considerable magnitude” includes wrongful conviction, shooting deaths, Starlight Tours, excessive violence, dereliction of duty, and over-representation in several areas of law enforcement. Each of these cases, known by the names of the victims — Donald Marshall, Helen Betty Osborne, J.J. Harper, Raymond Lawrence, Dudley George, Neil Stonechild, Matthew Dumas, to name only a few — was surrounded by public controversy and the assigning of blame. Among the most offensive conclusions is the charge that some of these people were responsible for their own deaths.
Along with the extensive research on these public events, Comack conducted interviews to “gather stories of Aboriginal peoples about their experiences with police.” Comack found that most abuses go unreported and unacknowledged as the racialized events that they are because they have become a normal way for police to relate to Aboriginal people.
Although tense and hostile relations between law enforcement agencies and inner-city populations cannot be denied, Comack’s project is not about trashing the police or “proving” the existence of racial profiling. She points out that while the work of the police is to maintain order, it is a very particular type of social order — one that has already been organized and sanctioned in the larger society. Consequently, to speak of racial profiling or “a few bad applies” ignores the much larger issue of racialization that normalizes hierarchies of privilege and oppression in Canada. Upholding the social order is over and against those who are then considered “disorderly,” dangerous, out of place, the racialized “other” — demonstrated in this book as Aboriginal peoples and Black Canadians. When racism is accounted for as an individual act — as it is in courts of law — racism that is systemic and socially organized can never be acknowledged or admitted for investigation, nor examined for its transgressive outcomes.
Without such recognition of systemic racism, legal systems practice a type of objectivity that overwhelmingly favours an ongoing, unequal social order which police services are trained to uphold. Ironically, an underlying order of systemic racism is that race and racism can never be examined or admitted. The culture and ideology of everyday racism operates simultaneously in plain view and always under denial.
This book would be easy to read for its well-researched accounts of shocking events of racialized policing while missing the main argument that these egregious acts are situated within the larger context of Canadian society. Comack’s theory of systemic racism implicates even those who think that racism has nothing to do with them, especially those benefitting from the “order” maintained by racialized law-enforcement agencies. Comack calls for “reframing the problem and re-envisioning the strategies for resolving” them. Sounds like a call for the larger society to come forward.
This article appeared in the November/December 2012 issue of Canadian Dimension (The Art of Protest).