The Anti-Racism Boom

April 2010

Racism is dangerous and harmful, but attempts to pass rules against it can sometimes do more harm than good. As Exhibit A, consider the appalling report of the Task Force on Campus Racism, published last week by the Ontario section of the Canadian Federation of Students. It's one more tyrannical attempt to legislate decency by increasing bureaucracy.

Far from pointing us toward a racism-free world, the task force contributes to the culture of accusation that has encouraged a mean, fearful atmosphere in Canadian universities. The text, just 48 pages long but with 79 recommendations, expresses the views of nine people, professors and students, who are obviously far more interested in the dogmas of "diversity" and "equity" than teaching and studying.

Their research, all purely anecdotal, violates basic standards of academic work. The witnesses they quote are self-selected, students who appeared at task force meetings to complain that something they saw (or maybe something they just sort of felt) appeared racist. That's a social scientist's nightmare, no more meaningful than interviews picked up on the street by a TV reporter.

The task force then translated these impressions into an indictment of universities for "systemic" racism, requiring a cure through an elaborate set of regulations.

The report feels suspiciously like an exercise in job creation. Most of the authors have been involved in dealing with racism in universities as teachers, consultants and facilitators. Their report implies that universities should hire more people just like themselves to make changes in admissions, curricula and the choice of faculty.

They recommend, for instance, that all faculty and staff in universities be required to take "anti-oppression training." And who would be more appropriate trainers than members of the task force? Their names on the report will now certify them as experts in the burgeoning anti-racism industry, if they weren't already. Unfortunately, there's no provision for aid to students and teachers who feel themselves oppressed by the anti-oppression rules.

The task force members favour an increase in courses on critical theory and equity studies, areas in which they will be at home. They also like the idea of departmental review committees to spot and remedy inappropriate "Eurocentrism" in the curriculum. A nice gig, by the sound of it.

The association apparently chose the nine authors for their well-known and uniform opinions. From the start, each of them apparently held the same views as all the others. Meetings must have been uncommonly amiable. The former rep from the National Students of Colour probably had few arguments with the woman who worked for 17 years at the Ontario Human Rights Commission, who in turn likely found plenty of agreement with the guy who represents the Canadian Union of Public Employees and the Canadian Peace Alliance.

No doubt, they all listened closely to their senior member, Frances Henry, Canada's No. 1 racism-spotter. Since the 1970s, she's been producing a series of disheartening reports, usually titled something like The Colour of Democracy: Racism in Canadian Society. She's dependable. Wherever she goes, she finds racism.

Collectively, the report's writers show no signs of reflective intelligence and no interest in true intellectual inquiry. They believe in racial diversity, but not diversity of opinion. In their minds, questions of context do not exist. They don't compare one kind of racism with another or try to determine whether it's worse now than in the past. They know only that racism is bad (true), it's pervasive (dubious) and that we must resist it with every institutional tool that comes to mind (highly dubious).

Harold Macmillan, prime minister of Britain from 1957 to 1963, used to quote the opinion of his classics tutor at Oxford: "Nothing you will learn in the course of your studies will be of the slightest possible use to you in after life, save only this: That if you work hard and diligently you should be able to detect when a man is talking rot. And that, in my view, is the main, if not the sole purpose of education."

Put another way, a university should teach students an ardent aversion to "the higher nonsense," the reigning cliches of the moment. Robin Barrow, professor of the philosophy of education at Simon Fraser University, has written that Canadian universities are not only unable to nurture this ability, "they are themselves rapidly becoming repositories of the 'higher nonsense.'"

This way of thinking is obviously alien to everyone connected to the task force. The most horrible part is that university administrators and provincial governments must pretend to take this nonsense seriously, or risk being labelled racist themselves.