2017/03/15 Leave a comment
It all starts with having more and better data and ensuring that the data is consistent and reliable.
While there will be differing interpretations of what the data means, without having good data, society is flying blind when dealing with complex issues. While data and evidence are never perfect, they do provide a sounder basis for policy choices and political discussion:
Ontario will start collecting masses of race-based data on the programs in its biggest ministries this year, hoping to use the information to find and help stamp out systemic racism.
That’s a big deal in the provincial government’s new anti-racism strategy, a three-year plan that took a year to create.
Much of the strategy is high-level stuff, scooping together things particular ministries were doing and calling it a plan. That includes a training program for staff in the courts system so they better understand aboriginal culture, trying to make the boards of Children’s Aid Societies more diverse and having the first black judge on the Ontario Court of Appeal assess the way police forces are overseen. All of it noble, some of it genuinely consequential, most of it already underway.
There’s also this: “To address racial inequities, we need better race-based disaggregated data — data that can be broken down so that we further understand whether specific segments of the population are experiencing adverse impacts of systemic racism,” the strategy says.
They’re going to start with health, primary and secondary education, justice and child welfare. That is, in the areas where government policy really makes and breaks lives.
The systems in those various ministries generate boatloads of data already, from wait times for surgeries to rates of readmission for patients in particular hospitals, from school occupancy numbers to results from Grade 6 math tests, from trial times to recidivism rates. “Disaggregating” that data means pulling apart the stats by race, routinely, in a way that typically raises more questions than it answers.
So if 15 per cent of the Queensway Carleton Hospital’s patients are back in hospital within 30 days of being discharged, we’ll monitor whether the stat is the same for members of different racial groups. If not, why is that?
Pulling all this together means devising a consistent approach so the information is collected, crunched and presented in a standard form, while protecting privacy. Which is hard enough, and that’s before we get to what we’ll do with the information.
This is, historically, very touchy. Systemic racism “can be unintentional, and doesn’t necessarily mean that people within an organization are racist,” the government says, but being accused of systemic racism sets off the same sorts of reactions as being accused of the traditional kind.
Here in Ottawa, the police spent two years tracking race-related data on their traffic stops, following a human rights complaint by a black teenager who said he’d been pulled over only because an officer was suspicious of him driving a Mercedes (which was his mother’s). When researchers managing the study released their findings last fall, they reported that drivers the police identified as black or Middle Eastern were stopped at rates many times their population shares.
A companion study found some officers deliberately misrecording the races of people they’d stopped, staying away from some parts of town and otherwise behaving differently to shift the stats so they’d suggest less racism. To whatever extent police officers changed their behaviour so as to actually behave less racistly when they knew their work was being measured, that’s a good thing in itself, of course.
Ontario’s chief human-rights commissioner Renu Mandhane argued the stats are consistent with racial profiling; Chief Charles Bordeleau of the police defended his officers, saying there’s nothing going on in the police force beyond what’s normal in society at large.
(Something similar happened when the Toronto police released statistics on the people they “carded” — stopped in the street to ask for their ID papers. Way more black and brown people than whites, for reasons that were argued about for years. Yasir Naqvi, the then-provincial minister responsible for policing, imposed new rules scaling the practice back.)
You can use such statistical findings in a lot of ways, including flatly racist ones. Maybe the police are irrationally suspicious of certain visible minority groups. Maybe certain visible minority groups are worse drivers. Maybe they’re more likely to be driving in areas patrolled by police — a possibility that opens whole vistas of speculation about why either of those things might happen. Maybe it’s a combination of things. Collecting the data doesn’t solve the problem.
We can argue about why people in different ethnic groups have different dealings with the authorities, and heaven knows we do. Sometimes to a fault. But at least with traffic stops and carding, nobody can say any longer that it doesn’t happen, and that’s a step forward.