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Jamil Jivani: A new challenge for Canadians of any colour: Remixed racism

Commentary

The Aristotle Foundation for Public Policy is a new policy think tank focused on Canadian civil society, democracy, and the country’s foundational ideas and values. Its first major output is an essay compilation entitled The 1867 Project: Why Canada Should be Cherished—Not Cancelled. The Hub is pleased to publish weekly excerpts from the book’s essays over the coming weeks.


For centuries, black Canadians have been part of inspiring political and social movements aimed at pushing Canada to live up to its ideals. When black men and women pressed for equality of opportunity, we challenged Canada to truly be a land where the rule of law reigns supreme and individuals are not defined by what they look like or where their parents come from. 

But today’s “chattering classes”—academics, journalists, politicians, and increasingly, too many CEOs—do not encourage Canadians to recognize the success of previous generations of black Canadians who fought hard for a better life. Rather, they advance a worldview that suggests little has changed and that black victimhood has remained a constant throughout the decades, with blacks ostensibly held down by abstract ideas like “systemic racism” and “white privilege.”

For a black Canadian to be accepted by those who advance this anti-history narrative often requires blacks to play the role of a long-suffering minority in need of a well-intentioned white liberal saviour. It means parroting their preferred political talking points and social values. Even where the majority of black people might disagree with elite liberal consensus, black men and women who seek acceptance in such circles will feel pressured to downplay genuine, diverse community perspectives in favour of a narrow range of “acceptable” opinions. 

Consequently, some of the most important issues in black communities tend to receive little attention because they are not a priority for those who believe racism can explain human success and failure, or who believe that government-as-parent is akin to real parenting. 

The result is that pressing issues such as the role of fathers and family formation, the role of churches and faith, or the importance of wealth creation, educational attainment, and the negative influence of popular culture and the ripple effects of violent crime are mostly ignored in the analyses by academics and other elites who talk only to each other, not to most people in the black community. 

It is why black Canadians who want to genuinely help our communities often risk having our authenticity attacked by people who believe black men and women should only think and speak in one way. It is far easier to remove oneself from the public square than to be verbally assaulted by those who believe a black person’s ideology should mirror the Toronto Star editorial page or the CBC newsroom. 

The rise of ‘remixed racism’ via ‘anti-racism’

Modern self-described anti-racism borrows from the racism of the past and reintroduces it to modern audiences with a new, faux-progressive style. It is increasingly obvious in government departments, media companies, school boards, universities, and corporations, all of which focus on race and whether one is “black enough” (or “enough” of some other identity). 

This trendy new phenomenon goes by many names: anti-racism, neo-racism, the elect, critical race theory, identity politics, wokeness. It is difficult to pin down a term that adequately describes precisely what is going on but I will propose one: remixed racism. Like a top forty single that samples a golden oldie, remixed racism changes the tempo, speeds up the chorus, and maybe even introduces a rapper to spit a hot sixteen bars. But in the end, remixes are always another variation of the same tune.

For example, workshop materials obtained by the Toronto Sun in 2021 showed that federal government officials are taught that perfectionism, feeling a sense of urgency about some matter or task, individualism, fealty to the written word, and objectivity are all characteristics of white supremacist culture. 

In other words, the federal government uses taxpayer dollars to teach that race and culture are one in the same, and certain cultural ideas or useful practices associated with hard work, science, and democracy are incompatible with non-white cultures.

Canada’s struggle with remixed racism does not stop in Ottawa. The City of Hamilton brought us back to the “anti-miscegenation” era of pre-1967 United States with its 2021 decision to distribute COVID-19 vaccines in a manner that would divide families and households by race. The city offered vaccine appointments to residents in five postal code areas, but specified that only “Black and other racialized populations/people of colour ages 18+” could receive the vaccine (i.e., no white people). Hamilton’s disregard for such families is a remix of Jim Crow-era hostility toward multi-racial families.

Too many in the media and in corporations are also guilty of anti-Martin Luther King Jr. advocacy, i.e., treating people as different based on their skin colour as opposed to focusing on their character and competence. This became obvious in 2020 when Canada’s “progressive” journalists were exposed as evading their responsibility to cover stories that might cast doubt on their own judgment concerning the far-left. For years, organizations like the CBC, the Toronto Star and the Globe and Mail relied on a small, unrepresentative group of voices to speak on behalf of minority communities. 

As with the game of musical chairs where the losers are those who cannot find a chair when the music stops, the same few activists and academics appear in social justice-themed stories, parroting the same old talking points that list myriad problems but lack practical solutions—while actual, useful voices are nowhere to be found in such news stories and opinion columns. 

Not too long ago, Canadians openly and unapologetically shared King’s vision for a united nation made up of upstanding individuals of strong character. A Toronto Star op-ed from 2007 borrowed from King’s famous “I Have A Dream” speech. The published headline reads: “Character, not colour, matters.” 

It is hard to imagine a mainstream newspaper publishing a headline emphasizing character over colour today. After observing how journalists and editors have behaved in recent years, any mainstream newspaper publishing a headline inspired by King’s dream today would likely need to hold an emergency Zoom town hall for their staff to express sadness and anger. Twitter mobs would demand an apology, too.

Although King was clear about the need for public policy to address racial inequalities, he did hope for a future in which race would be less important in human interactions. King’s firm belief in the importance of character is timeless, and we could all learn something from the civil rights icon. 

Canada should strive to realize King’s dream of a world where people are judged by the content of their character, not the colour of their skin. That is merely updated and remixed racism.

Sean Speer: After the Bud Light backlash, companies should consider being apolitical

Commentary

One of the biggest stories in the first half of 2023 has been the migration of cultural and political conflict to the corporate world. High-profile cases involving Bud Light, Disney and Target have dominated the news as the latest fronts in the growing politicization of virtually every facet of modern life.

What has made them so notable though isn’t that large companies have weighed into political matters—especially on the side of left-wing causes. As most conservatives will attest, that’s hardly a new development. But what’s different is that there’s been a semi-coordinated and sustained pushback in the form of boycotts and protests.

And it’s working. Bud-Light’s parent company, Anheuser-Busch, has lost more than $15 billion in its market valuation. Target’s share price has fallen by nearly one quarter since mid-May. Both companies have since abandoned the products or marketing campaigns that had precipitated the reaction. The market has seemingly spoken.

There’s been a lot of criticism of these so-called “anti-woke” campaigns. They’ve been characterized as bigoted, reactionary, and far right. As far as California governor Gavin Newsom is concerned, the companies sold out to a group of so-called “extremists.”

Although it’s quite possible that some involved in these campaigns are indeed motivated by objectionable views, the sheer numbers suggest that they cannot be dismissed as a fringe minority. Consider for instance that Bud Light has been supplanted as the top-selling beer in America for the first time in more than two decades. It’s hard to explain such a significant market change as merely the agitation of a small number of hardcore ideologues.

There have been some however who’ve argued that these consumer backlashes to corporate campaigns about identity, sexuality, and trans issues are an improper use of market power. They represent, according to this line of thinking, a “rearguard action…to block corporations from making their own decisions about how to adapt to social change.”

The problem with this argument is that it presumes that companies ought to be able to assume political positions free from any consequences. That they have no accountability to their customers, clients, or the market itself. They ought to be able to reap the upside of entering the political arena but ultimately be protected from the downside. Put more bluntly: these companies assumed that they could increasingly nod to left-wing political preferences on culture and identity and their more right-wing customers would simply acquiesce.

That’s of course not how business or politics or markets work. There are natural feedback mechanisms in a liberal, democratic, and capitalistic society. Customers can vote with their wallets. It’s arguably an even more powerful signal in the corporate world where majoritarian preferences aren’t constrained by constitutional protections for minorities. Companies must contend with the inherent tensions between liberalism, democracy, and market capitalism.

The recent string of high-profile cases suggest that major corporations have come to misread these potential trade-offs. They’ve taken for granted that their creeping politicalization is costless. The market’s definitive reaction in these cases should be viewed therefore as a useful corrective. Markets have done what markets invariably do.

They’ve reminded large companies like Bud Light and Target that their outright politicalization—particularly on contentious and unsettled matters—likely involves internalizing some costs. They can then better judge the actual consequences of their choices. The right response is to retrench from the excesses of what author and business consultant, Joseph Zamia-Lucia, calls “political capitalism.”

I interviewed him about some of these developments and how we ought to interpret them for an episode of Hub Dialogues in April 2022. I asked in particular about the feedback mechanism that would influence corporate decision-making about politics. He said:

“…whenever you take a political position, you will please some and infuriate others. When Nike took a position on Black Lives Matter, it garnered a lot of support from some people, and others were burning Nike shoes in the streets. Businesses have traditionally believed that they shouldn’t upset anybody. When you take political positions, you will inevitably upset some people….”

Markets are competitive things. The beauty about markets, if they are competitive, not monopolistic or oligopolistic, is that different corporations will take different positions that they believe in, or because they believe there are market opportunities. So, as long as we have sufficient diversity in the market, the likelihood is that different companies will take different positions.

Although he’s right that markets can act as important signals for firms judging the benefits and costs of adopting different political positions, Zamia-Lucia is wrong that the trend towards political capitalism is inexorable. There’s a counterintuitive case that the market reaction to these recent instances may actually cause firms to revert to a more apolitical position. That would be a positive development.

One of the great benefits of liberal democracy is to minimize the role of politics in our lives. It establishes democratic processes for selecting representatives and then delegates day-to-day governance to them. The rest of the constitutional model is about preserving space for people to live out their lives mostly free from political interference and even politics itself.

The places where politics pervade daily life, by contrast, tend to be totalitarian. Politics cannot be escaped there. They define how you live, what you say, and what you do. They’re totalizing.

The recent trend of politics manifesting itself in business, sports, and other non-political parts of modern life is unhealthy. It conflicts with the limited aspirations of liberal democracy and pushes us in a far worse direction. We should recommit to a more circumscribed vision of politics such that buying clothes or drinking beer isn’t an expression of one’s deepest political values.

If these recent cases help us to realize such a vision, the controversy and conflict will have ultimately been worth it. The market will have worked and our societies will be better for it.