How racist are we, really? The case for quantifying systemic bias

April 27, 2016 – Anna Mehler Paperny, Global News

t’s tough to tackle systemic racism when the people you’re talking to are outraged when you suggest it’s an issue.

Renu Mandhane, Chief Commissioner at Ontario’s Human Rights Commission, has run up against that umbrage in her efforts to end racial profiling within Ontario police forces.

“We hosted this racial profiling dialogue that brought together community and police. And the police were really offended by this suggestion they were racist, when what we were talking about is systemic racism,” she said.

“We’re not personally attacking these police officers: We’re just saying there’s ingrained bias.”

That ingrained bias was on display Tuesday, Hamilton councillor Matthew Green says, when police officers stopped and questioned him while he was waiting for a bus.

“[The police officer] repeatedly questioned my credibility, acting in an intimidating manner and continued to harass me even though it was clear I was not a suspect in any crime nor involved in criminal activity,” Green wrote in a letter formally filing his complaint with the Hamilton Police Service.

“I feel what he was doing was unlawful and unconstitutional.”

Hamilton police said in an email Wednesday they can’t comment on complaint investigations “in order to ensure the integrity of that process.”

Regardless of what happened on the corner of Stinson Street and Victoria Avenue Tuesday afternoon, Mandhane isn’t surprised that, despiteCommunity Safety Minister Yasir Naqvi‘s declaration that it should “never be tolerated, police racial profiling in Ontario isn’t over.

Even if the province’s carding-specific regulation were completely successful, she says, there are myriad other forms racial profiling can take.

She hopes Naqvi’s review of Ontario’s Police Services Act will help, at least by requiring all police boards to draft and implement policies aimed at eradicating racial profiling.

But it’s tough to legislate away unconscious bias.

“The police themselves need to actually show some leadership here,” she said.

“We shouldn’t need laws that say ‘Don’t discriminate’ in all of the different ways that police interact with communities. That can’t be the way that this moves forward.”

And the umbrage she encounters from people offended by the suggestion that their actions could be racist is part of the problem, Mandhane says.

“Whenever we have conversations with police and we’re talking about racial profiling and systemic racism, they think we’re talking about direct racism. And they get very defensive.”

So she wants to move past those discussions toward something more concrete. And for that, she needs numbers.

“We’re calling for the mandated collection of disaggregated race-based data for traffic stops, for any use of force.”

For almost three years, Ottawa Police have recorded the race of all the drivers whose vehicles they pull over – part of a settlement agreement with Ontario’s Human Rights Commission over a case of racist traffic stops.

The logic is that once you have hard numbers on disparities in police behaviour, or in who’s being over- or under-policed, you can move beyond irate exchanges over who is and isn’t racist and focus on targeting quantifiable inequities.

Canadians get queasy about race-based data collection. We like to think we don’t judge each others’ ethnic demarcations.

“Canadians are very hesitant to talk about race. We like to talk about diversity and inclusion and multiculturalism but we don’t particularly want to talk about racism,” Mandhane said.

“I think data that would show the disproportionate policing of black people and indigenous people, it will challenge that mythology.

“And I think people are reluctant to go there.”

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