When RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki was asked if her force was systemically racist, she replied that she believed unconscious bias existed in the force but struggled with systemic racism. How do you define it, she queried. After a meeting with Public Safety Minister Bill Blair, who apparently schooled her in the Liberal Party’s official definition, she conceded that “systemic racism is part of every institution, the RCMP included.”
Her change of heart was not well received by her troops. Brian Sauvé, president of the National Police Federation, the union that represents RCMP members below the rank of inspector, begged to differ. He was justified. She was right the first time.
We are all tribal. We are all biased toward members of our own group as opposed to members of other groups. Every cop is biased, every member of Black Lives Matter is biased, and everyone reading this post is biased. We have no choice in the matter. Our architects—our genes—design us this way. If they didn’t, we would hardly be human. We wouldn’t feel responsibility towards our community, we wouldn’t love our country, we wouldn’t feel a loyalty towards our faith, our political philosophy or our profession, and we wouldn’t experience a sense of loss when our hockey team blew another game. Geneticists have even identified the genes that design and construct us this way. We are a social animal.
It would be surprising indeed if an all-white police force, not sufficiently immersed in the knowledge of this bias, didn’t tend to give black drivers more traffic tickets. Not because they don’t like black people, not because they are racist, but because they are more forgiving toward their own people.
All of us should be aware of our intrinsic biases. Otherwise, they may corrupt our relationships with members of other groups. When it comes to people who hold power over others, such as the police, it is doubly important. If we haven’t been sufficiently instilling this knowledge into our police forces, then we do indeed need to better train them.
What we don’t need is smearing institutions and individuals with unfounded accusations of racism. According to my dictionary, racism is “the belief that all members of each race possess characteristics or abilities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races.” And when you believe that, and only when you believe that, you are a racist.
Recently other definitions have emerged. In Public Safety Minister Blair’s words, “I define systemic racism as deficiencies in the system that give rise to different outcomes for different racial groups.” If we are going to dilute the meaning of racism to the point it sweeps up discrimination, we are going to need a new definition for belief in the superiority of races.
Members of disadvantaged groups may ask what difference the definition makes anyway—just get off our necks. I appreciate that. But definitions always matter, for a number of reasons. If we can’t agree on what our words mean, we can’t communicate, and that makes solving the problem much more difficult.
Using this new, mushier definition leads to stigmatizing entire populations—police forces, if not societies generally—by accusing them of cleaving to an evil ism rather than recognizing that they are simply responding to a normal human imperative. It is the difference between blaming and understanding. We can debate a common human challenge or we can hurl insults. I prefer the former.