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Universities not facing up to race issues, say scholars

Schools are ‘in denial,’ don’t recognize systemic racism on their campuses

Professor Joanne St. Lewis
When five positions opened up recently at the University of Ottawa law faculty, Professor St. Lewis assembled a list of minority candidates for consideration.

Despite having officially inclusive policies, Canadian universities continue to be structurally racist, a meeting of the Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences was told. That reality stems from a refusal to recognize systemic – as opposed to individual – racism, and from the insidious barriers, roadblocks and discrimination faced by visible minority academics.

Carol Tator, an anti-racism researcher at York University, Dolana Mogadime, professor of education at Brock University, and Joanne St. Lewis, law professor at the University of Ottawa, were panellists at a March workshop in Ottawa as part of the federation’s annual general assembly. The panel was moderated by Malinda Smith of the University of Alberta, the federation’s vice-president for equity issues.

The panellists agreed that too many white academics and university administrators just “don’t get it” when it comes to racism and race issues. “The culture of whiteness continues to be pervasive and systemic,” said Ms. Tator, co-editor with Frances Henry of Racism in the Canadian University: Demanding Social Justice, Inclusion, and Equity, to be published this spring by University of Toronto Press.

For example, while many Canadian universities have equal-rights policies and vision statements about racial equity, she said they don’t follow up with action.

One contributor to her book, Enakshi Dua, interviewed human rights or equity officers at Canadian universities and found rights policies have only a limited effect in addressing racism. Thirteen of the 14 officers interviewed said the most powerful barrier to implementing policies was the unwillingness of senior administrators to address systemic and structural racism in their universities.

“Racism is at the bottom of the list in terms of administration looking at forms of oppression,” said Ms. Tator. “There’s only a broad recognition of individual hate crimes, but nothing above the level of the individual.”

Ms. Tator said universities need to recognize the existence of systemic discrimination, which is often experienced by academics in seemingly small ways.

For example, she said, research on racism and other forms of oppression is commonly undervalued, and that can be a significant barrier to tenure and promotion; meanwhile, visible minority faculty members are asked to sit on committees or mentor students because administrators want their faces in prominent positions in order to present an image of equity.

“All these stresses and strains do not happen to people who look like me,” said Ms. Tator, who is white.

“The fact that I’ve achieved what I have achieved doesn’t mean the system is working,” added Ms. St. Lewis, director of the Human Rights Research and Education Centre at U of O. She said she gets frustrated when her success is held up as an example that nothing more needs to be done for visible minorities.

“It’s not just how many black faces [there are] in the room,” said Ms. St. Lewis. “It’s about the space to engage in intellectual work. It’s about the opportunity to create new forms of knowledge.”

Ms. St. Lewis said university administrators, when challenged on why more visible minority academics are not hired, frequently cite the lack of acceptable candidates. But that, she said, is because they are not looking in the right places.

Ms. St. Lewis said that when five positions recently opened up at the University of Ottawa law school, she challenged the university by asking whether she could present her own pool of visible minority candidates for hiring consideration. She created the pool by contacting people in her own networks and asking them to give her the names of their most promising students. She followed up by speaking to U of O professors who were influential in the department, and making sure they attended hiring meetings.

The result, she said, was that the university filled all five positions from her pool of visible minority candidates.

Malinda Smith said part of the challenge is that nobody will admit to being racist: “I think there’s outright denial that this is an issue,” she told the assembly. “Until people acknowledge there’s a problem, we will continue to ask why we haven’t moved beyond the rhetoric.”

Ms. St. Lewis said that inclusion matters a great deal to universities. As institutions of knowledge, they need to be giving their students the right kinds of knowledge.

“The entire society relies on us,” she said. “We impoverish our society by our inability to maximize our intellectual gifts.” Ms. St. Lewis said that she sees in race a parallel to the barriers once faced by women: “Until there were women lawyers, and until feminist theory got developed, women were disenfranchised.”

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  1. Yves Talla / March 24, 2009 at 17:55

    I would like to acknowledge the fact that what is going on now is really sad. I believe that most of the scholars hit by racism when it comes to filling faculty positions belong to visible minority groups who hold PhDs or degrees from renown foreign universities and they can contribute significantly to research in this country by bringing in diversities. There is usually a lot of frustration because these highly-motivated scholars usually find themselves in situations where their academic ambitions are simply thwarted. I think it is about time these scholars were given a chance to prove what they can.

  2. Nimish Shukla / March 25, 2009 at 17:12

    I guess it is becoming normal for an Immigrant from a third world country to experience systematic racism, humiliation, indirect insults and being underestimated all the time. Having worked for a University for 15 years in South Africa and nearly 2 years in Ontario. There couldnt be better person to say that Universities are one of the hardest hit.

  3. anne / March 25, 2009 at 17:24

    This is a serious issue and visible concern. However, I’m impressed to see the commitment many staff have taken at Student Affairs at Queen’s University. I’m consistently motivated with the work they’re doing to combat such important issues.

  4. Subhadeep Chakrabarti / April 9, 2009 at 12:51

    I think we need to tread very carefully here. While specific greivances need to be addresses promptly, it is too easy for the pendulum to swing too far in the opposite direction. The last thing we need on our university campuses is a system of quotas and affirmative action that cheapens the achievements of deserving visible minorities and gives a sense of entitlement to less deserving ones. As for the comment about oppression, people should get real and look around the world before making such asinine comments. I don’t want to start a flame war, but Canada is a great place to live and work, as long as you speak decent English/ French and treat others with respect. If you cannot have respect for this country and its values and institutions, you do not deserve respect either. I for one, grew up in India and have observed the harmful effects of affirmative action first-hand and I would always stand up for equal opportunities for all and special treeament for none. The issues facing aboriginal Canadians are slightly different and maybe some special measures are needed for a generation or two, but the visible minorities are by-and-large doing pretty well and seem to over-represented in campuses in Alberta, Ontario and BC at least!

  5. Mustafa Khan / May 5, 2009 at 13:19

    A HUGE barrier to visible minorities entering law school is the LSAT. Look at the LSAC Correlation Studies and consistently they have shown that there is a weak correlation between LSAT scores and first year law school grades. This has a negative effect of the proportion of visible minorities entering law school.

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