Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Review: Race, Space, and the Law

[Sherene H. Razack, editor. Race, Space, and the Law: Unmapping a White Settler Society. Toronto: Between The Lines, 2002.]

While I was away on my recent trip to southern Ontario, someone I know -- someone I admire politically and like a lot personally -- and another person I have met only once got beaten by the cops.

It was an outcome made possible by the fact that this person is a queer white youth that the cops read as being street-involved, and who also happens to be a fairly well known radical activist in the community; by this person's passionate personal and political commitment not to leave unnamed and unopposed oppressive treatment, even if it comes from someone with a badge and a gun; by the cops reading the place they were in as tainted, corrupt, and in need of heavy-duty intervention by the forces of law-and-order because of a supposed association with sex work; and by a legal (and medical) system that most of the time in this set of circumstances would facilitate both the police violence remaining invisible and further sanction by the state being focused on the survivors of the police assault. Hopefully, brave resistance by the survivors and community mobilization in their support will make the outcome a bit different this time. (I am talking about this in a public space, by the way, because of a commitment by the two people concerned to resist the assault and the charges against them in as public a way as possible -- please read this for a brief summary, and go here for photos and further detail.)

It is an interesting coincidence that I recently finished reading Race, Space, and the Law, a book of essays looking at how the law (as well as other texts and discourse) has been used to constitute space in Canada, and how that space differentially impacts, constitutes, and is constituted by bodies that are socially marked for oppression or privilege in various ways, particuarly via racialization.

Three of the chapters are historical. One looks at some of the early history of the colonization that turned the eastern part of northern North America from a network of indigenous nations into "eastern Canada," and resistance to that colonization. It pays particular attention to taking apart Canadian delusions of national innocence grounded in part on seeing this process as not really being conquest just because the methods were a little more subtle than those sometimes used further south. The second examines how mixed-race identity was regulated spatially with respect to alcohol in early colonial British Columbia. And the third is a detailed look at women's memories, place, and the internment of Japanese and Japanese Canadian people in various sites in Canada during and after World War II. One useful element of this last one for me is its disruption of the somewhat sanitized remembrance of internment that has been grudgingly admitted into the mainstream through a detailed look at the violence done to communities and families through forcible confinement of particular bodies to particular spaces.

The reamining six chapters are more contemporary in focus, though the interplay among spatial realities, historical trajectories, and regulating texts -- as well as racialized individuals, communities, and nations -- keep the explorations of social reality very nuanced and staunchly materialist. I found several of them particularly interesting.

Sheila Dawn Gill writes about an incident illustrating the ways in which a white supremacist discourse about the province of Manitoba was enforced in the province's legislature, and an indigenous discourse ruled invalid. In 1995, a Cree man who was a member of the provincial legislature was censured and later ejected for naming the racist outcomes of certain government policies as being, in fact, racist. His evidence, even the evidence that came from an official enquiry into racism in the justice system in Manitoba that had concluded a few years earlier, was judged irrelevant by the speaker of the house, who decided that parliamentary decorum dictated that nothing associated with Manitoba could be named "racist" in the house, though external things like apartheid South Africa could still be named in that way. The white Preimer of Manitoba also made a speech rebutting this invokation of racism, in which he waxed poetic about his experience of the northern part of Manitoba in his younger years as an engineer working for the provincial utility. The essay examines the speech in detail, and compares its rosy picture of that space and time with the realities of the colonial legislation through which the state gave the utility the power to make use of the land in that way, and with indigenous experiences of the utility and of their resistance to it.

Another interesting one is Sheryl Nestel's discussion of the role of race and space in the emergence of legalized midwifery in Ontario. Nestel was one of the white feminist women involved in the grassroots campaign to win this victory. She still views it as an improvement over the medical model of maternity care, but has become increasingly aware that it "unwittingly reproduce(d) global and local structures of domination and subordination" in the differential impacts it created among women. One such differential impact is the ways in which the state regulation constitutes Ontario as a place where mostly white women who attend formal schooling here are given permission to supervise births, while immigrant women of colour who have extensive qualifications and experience as practicing midwives in their countries of origin face almost insurmountable barriers in becoming certified in Ontario. This unequal regulatory ground was created, moreover, using strategies during the period of changeover to formal regulation of midwifery that benefited white women who at the time had no more formal qualifications and probably considerably less practical experience than many of these immigrant women of colour, and functioned to the detriment of women of colour in other spaces. At the level of rhetoric, there was a tendency by the pro-midwifery movement to reproduce imperial discourse exoticizing and "Othering" Third World women in the course of popularizing the idea that the medical interventions of obstetricians are often unnecessary. More central to the essay was the use of "midwifery tourism" to allow (mostly white) women who had been practicing as lay midwives in the legal grey area that previously existed in Ontario to qualify to be grandparented into the new regulatory regime. They had to attend a minimum number of births but could generally not do so in Ontario, so they would pay to go to facilities on the U.S.-Mexico border or in the Carribbean. These facilities were spaces that sold to mostly-white women who wished to become midwives the chance to be present for a high volume of births by mostly-women of colour in a relatively short time. This model does not at all reflect the nature of care that midwifery supposedly embodies, and how it was being implemented in Ontario. Often the attending midwives did not even speak the language of the women of colour under their care. And often the whole process was made to seem benign, both in the advertising of the facilities and in the recollections of women who attended births there, through rhetoric of "global sisterhood" and "women helping women."

The essay by Razack herself is the one that has the most direct relevance to my friend's recent experience of violence. The details differ in important ways, of course, but in both situations there are elements produced by the interplay among violence, the slotting of particular bodies into interlocking hierarchies of power and privilege, the perception and social creation of spaces, and the legal system. The essay uses court documents and media accounts to examine race, space, and the law in the case of the murder of Pamela George, an Aboriginal woman who sometimes worked in the sex trade, by two privileged young white male athletes who had hired her. I won't try to reproduce the argument in any detail, but it is very powerful to see the ways in which this case illustrates whose bodies matter, whose are considered to be "naturally" more likely to experience violence, and how their relationships to different kinds of space are constituted. And, moreover, how nominal colourblindness allows all of this to play a huge role in shaping the actions of the police, the courts, and other people. Though I know I should know beter, it still blew my mind that it came out in the course of the trial that the murderers, in the period before they had been subject to any police attention whatsoever, had told a number of friends and parents that they had beaten up and possibly killed an "Indian hooker" and that there was such a profound lack of concern for her as a fellow human being and for what these two young men had done from the people they told. It was also telling that despite being told of two young white guys who hired her that night, the cops spent a month looking for the culprit among (i.e. harassing) people linked to the same "tainted" spaces as the victim -- spaces of the street and of Aboriginality -- rather than putting any effort into investigating the lead that actually turned out to be the right one.

I find in looking back over what I've said here that I haven't really been as effective as I'd like in bringing out the elements of critical geography -- something I've never really read before -- that were in these interdisciplinary essays. I've always been inclined towards spatial metaphors for expressing certain kinds of things, and I think that adding explicit attention to spaces, how they are constituted, and how they relate to the texts and to the people who constitue them, is an important part in producing an analysis that is sophisticated, relevant, and materialist. That alone is an important learning for me from this book, never mind the relevance of particular essays to my slowly advancing project.

But the experience of the two activists with which I began this review really drives the point home for me: who, where, and how the law relates to both of those things determines the allocation of bruises and the allocation of state complicity, support, or even in many cases total absoluation in the regular bruising (and much worse) of others.

[Edit: For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]

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