Monday, March 26, 2007

Review: Canada's Economic Apartheid

[Grace-Edward Galabuzi. Canada's Economic Apartheid: The Social Exclusion of Racialized Groups in the New Century. Toronto: Canadian Scholars' Press, 2006.]

One of the most useful questions you can ask yourself as a writer is, "Why am I doing this?" or, in different words, "What do I hope to accomplish by the text I am producing?" This question can cut through all kinds of confusion and hesitancy about where to take a particular piece of work.

I suppose the asking of such questions is really just a piece of common sense and I suspect that we all ask it as we work, whether or not it ever reaches the level of consciousness. However, I think the two years I spent doing writing and research with a non-profit agency in the social service sector (while independently engaged in similar but very different activity as part of a funded, community-based anti-racism project) helped me to appreciate the value of asking this question more explicitly. This was not because the culture of the agency that I worked for encouraged it -- it was more because it did not, and because I came increasingly to realize that both the organization and myself personally could be more effective even within the constraints that bounded us if we would only ask, and if we accepted no illusions in our answers. I don't think I figured out good ways to ask that question and put my answers into effect before I left that job and moved on to other things, but the lesson has stuck with me.

I think that one of the things that encouraged me to a more politicized asking of "Why? For what?" was the anti-racism project I was also a part of at the same time. That sector, not surprisingly, seemed to include ways of work that involved many fewer illusions about the potential benevolence of the state even when the project itself was state-funded. The consciousness of document production as carefully calculated political intervention was quite matter of course. (It was also in the context of that project that I first encountered Galabuzi's work, through an earlier report he had done on the same theme as this book in cooperation with the Centre for Social Justice in Toronto.)

All of this history leads me to read Canadian Economic Apartheid not as the dry academic publication for which it could easily be mistaken, but as a cannily crafted political act. I can only speculate of course but I think Galabuzi has made deliberate choices about why he is writing and how his text might have an impact once released into the world, choices based on an understanding of both the benefits and constraints flowing from the ways he has answered "Why?"

Now, one fairly common response to documents such as this book is the quite sensible observation that it is not reports, books, studies, and research, research, research that is going to change the world -- only organizing will do that. On the one hand, this is completely true. Any bureaucratic relations that wish to avoid open authoritarianism become adept at churning out documents that give the appearance of acting on some problem of public interest while in fact doing the opposite. The Canadian tradition of the Royal Commission often raises this to an art form, but the run-of-the-mill output of state and para-state institutions can do much the same. The binge of federally-funded research on homelessness beginning in the late '90s -- funded to manage the potential problem, understood as existing at the level of public relations by those who make such decisions, of the federal government being partially responsible for causing the upsurge in homelessness to begin with -- is a prime example of this (and one which paid me a salary for awhile, I must admit).

At the same time, this cynicism about the role of documents can easily be taken too far. Carefully crafted written words can have a tremendous impact. Saying this is not buying into the liberal mythology of social evolution as a process of continually refining ideas and then imposing them on the material world, of some sort of cerebral comptetition among concepts as the ultimate shaper of reality. Rather, it recognizes that the production and consumption of text are just as much a part of material reality as any other task, and (leaning on the wise analyses of Dorothy Smith) those acts are integral to translocally coordinating human activity. This coordination can happen because a text has some sort of official status and letting one's activities be guided by it is subject to some sort of enforcement, or it can be because the text captures the imaginations of people who are not otherwise obliged to activate it. A well-timed, well-written fiery pamphlet can bring thousands into the streets, for example, at least in certain times and places.

Choices Made

Canadian Economic Apartheid is not such a pamphlet. Galabuzi could have written one, I'd imagine, but one of his deliberate choices in producing the book was to select a rather differentmechanism of action -- a different set of people targeted to take up the ideas in different sorts of ways and shape their actions accordingly. In modern industrialized states, documents can also be targeted at an elite audience to try to create change. This approach can make things happen without the difficult conflict inherent to the fiery pamphlet route, but obviously the costs are high: To have a hope of actually encouraging change, a document must accept serious constraints. It must be written to make it at least minimally acceptable to the elites whose actions it wishes to shape, for example. It must accept certain conventions in terms of the information that it generates and presents, and the kinds of arguments it uses. It must meet quite mainstream understandings of rationality and, probably, quite mainstream theories of knowledge. It probably shouldn't be too angry in tone. Whatever policy recommendations are made should come across as something that "might work", given the preconceptions of the target audience. Moreover, it should appeal to the target audience's self-interest in some way, even if only via providing them with a path they can travel to affirm their self-image as benevolent. It must understand the existing elite-acceptable discourse on the subject, and respond to it in some way. It must understand who will read it, and why, and what their constraints are.

I hope it is obvious why producing a text to launch into such an environment in a deliberate, manipulative, illusion-free way is preferable to doing so in a less critical way. Neither will bring the revolution, of course, and both are really quite icky, because you have to restrain yourself from talking too much about what is really going on. Both, in fact, depend a lot on things happening way beyond the realm of elites who write reports to one another to determine what actually happens. However, the former gives you a better shot of nudgings circumstances in directions that might, just might, ease suffering in your community in ways that are not revolutionarily sexy, but can make a difference in real people's real lives.

It should be noted that such report writing has a long history on the social democratic left in Canada. One of the most important non-party institutions of the early social democratic left (just before and just after it started to actually have some influence in this country) was the League for Social Reconstruction, closely affiliated with the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation. They produced a number of key policy recommendations ultimately taken up by the Mackenzie King (and later) Liberals. Some of their other material was politely ignored because it did not fit the ideological preconceptions of the audience with the power to implement them. And lots of other important stuff did not get considered by the LSR authors at all. They were probably largely unwilling/incapable of recognizing some of the important factors underlying their ability to write reports that might be taken up by more elite elites to create policy and shape state relations and so on -- things like the origins of Canada and the resources to create a welfare state in colonialism and genocide, and the importance of the space created by revolution in Russia (however flawed) and the threat of radical ferment world wide to getting even their most modest proposals (however flawed) treated seriously by Canadian elite. Still, it was a certain kind of intervention, and it did make a difference to (some) ordinary people.

Anyway. Canada's Economic Apartheid is a book that enters into the tradition of trying to influence state policy through analysis. (The space created by anti-racism and other movement in Canada over the last few decades means that some of the blindnesses that marred early social democratic report writing are no longer mandatory, even if there are still limits on how they can be addressed). As part of its effort to adhere to conventions that would allow it to be taken seriously by elites, it is very, very quantitative, and its framework is very traditionally structuralist sociology. It does give a nod or two to critical race theory, but not much more. All of this means that it is a slow and not always terribly exciting read -- statistics can be portraying the most horrific kind of misery and oppression, but even the most talented writer cannot prevent them from becoming a bit mind-numbing. This means, of course, that this book is an absolutely crucial resource for the basic "facts" that you might need in discussing racism in the economy, whether the forum for debate is Parliament, a street corner, or Easter dinner. The value of having and using this kind of resource should not be underesetimated.

Another requirement of this sort of document is that it address policy debates as they currently exist. For this book, it means, for example, feeling obliged to meet messed up racist arguments that really do not deserve the time of day but that often catch the ears of policy makers. One of the key debates in which it intervenes is the contest to explain the fact that racialized people in Canada consistently (and often increasingly) make less money, have a higher unemployment rate, a lower employment rate, and have less wealth (with these things usually experienced in gendered ways) than white people, on average. There are a number of ways that different authors have tried to explain this over the years, while the research has been at different stages. One common explanation is the "immigration lag", i.e. that newcomers to Canada tend to do less well economically for the first number of years they are here, and on average racialized people in Canada are more likely to be relatively recent immigrants. This has been dismissed by more recent research (though right-wing analysts still often try to use it) that point out that while such a lag has always happened and still does, it has somehow ceased to be something that is overcome within a predictable, finite span. This shift has happened as the pool of immigrants to Canada has become increasingly racialized. And, of course, racialized people who are not immigrants face a gap as well, so the immigration lag, however real, is not explanatory.

When all of the various factors are taken into account, all the other possible explanations that analysts can grasp for, there is still a significant residual difference between racialized and non-racialized groups in Canada in these core economic readouts. It's a bit more complicated than this, but in essence the right tries to argue that the explanation for this residual is that these groups, for social and hisotrical reasons, tend to have less "human capital," are therefore "less productive", and therefore do less well in the supposedly perfect competition that is the labour market. Which boils down to a fancy way of claiming that people of colour and indigenous people just don't measure up to white people, with plenty of five dollar words thrown in so as to pretend that the argument isn't grossly racist.

The anti-racist rebuttals tend to talk about racialized (and gendered) segmentation of the labour market, empirical evidence of discrimination by employers, and overwhelming qualitative evidence of racism as reported by those who experience it. There are plenty of statistical arguments, too, based in more fine-grained examination of census data and the like. A key one is that educational attainment is often a key proxy for "human capital", and racialized people in Canada have, on average, higher educational attainment than white Canadians yet still do significantly less well in the labour market. To use the neutral, academic language, the process of racialization means that people are marked in such a way as to ensure that the human capital that they have is consistently underestimated and devalued by the people and organizations that tend to control hiring, evaluation, promotion, and so on.

This particular policy debate, and the choice of the book to participate in it, was one of the things that really made me conscious of the book as deliberate political calculation. I can't claim to know the author's mind and I, unlike him, do not experience racism so it is a dangerous area for me even to speculate, but I'd imagine it must be pretty galling to experience a lifetime of employers and co-workers devaluing your "human capital" (and your very self) in racist ways, yet to feel obliged to treat seriously and respectfully academic arguments that boil down to attempts to tell you that you and yours either aren't as good at stuff or don't work as hard as white folks. (And, yes, I know there are less crude versions of the various tortured attempts to find a way to explain the gap without admitting the existence of racism, but even so...)

A separate foray into the world of policy debates, and one that I quite enjoyed, was Galabuzi's take-down of "social inclusion" theory. It has become increasingly favoured over the last decade in a lot of official, funded spaces that cannot or do not want to continue ignoring the existence of oppression completely. It tends to be very liberal in its assumptions, to focus on things like "diversity" and "tolerance" and (not surprisingly) "inclusion", to erase the existence of privilege, and to pretend that you don't need to examine the mechanisms and history of exclusion. I knew I didn't like it when I first encountered it in the agency sector but I was not immediately able to articulate why, and I didn't run across any written critiques of it at the time, so it is nice to see Galabuzi's. He counterposes it to "social exclusion" theory -- sounds like it is related, but it isn't really. Rather than social inclusion's "accentuate the positive" gloss that lets people avoid the tough issues while claiming they are dealing with them, social exclusion theory places a great deal of emphasis on mechanisms, roots, and details of exclusion. It brings up the "divisive" issues that social inclusion theory ignores. It is based, from what I understand, on European work focused on class; some work has been done to make it more broadly anti-oppressive, though more needs to be done. It seems to be a useful framework for reading anti-oppression politics into academically acceptable language without completely losing their teeth.

The heart of the book is, of course, what it has to say about the growing apartheid character of Canada's economy. In the course of the book, through heavy use of statistics, Galabuzi demonstrates a number of key points. He shows that class relations/relations of production in Canada are becoming increasingly racialized and the labour market is becoming increasingly segmented along lines of race and gender. This is interconnected with increasing geographical segregation in Canadian cities, something that has historically been much less marked than in U.S. cities for various reasons.

The book explains the changes that it documents as being part of an interaction between longstanding historical patterns of racist social exclusion in Canada, originating in the founding myth of Canada as a white nation, colonization and genocide of indigenous peoples, the deliberate exclusion of people of colour from the country for many decades, and early choices to admit people of colour often through mechanisms involving overt economic subordination (such as migrant worker and domestic worker programs). It connects the economic dimensions of exclusion to other outcomes in terms of health, media, criminal justice, and national security. It does include some examination of qualitative experience, focusing particularly on women of colour and internationally educated professionals and tradespeople.

It is solid, it is rigorous, and anyone's understanding of Canada-as-it-is and their ability to argue and act for that which we wish to be here instead will be enhanced by reading it.

Two Quibbles

I have two minor-ish quibbles with the book, one aesthetic and the other semantic.

The first is about the number and size of call-out boxes used in the text. In principle, I agree that they are a good thing because they provide opportunities for different styles of engaging with text. The way they were used in this book also allows additional voices to be heard, because many included excerpts from other books on racism and anti-racism in Canada, including by such well-known academics in the area as Frances Henry, Carol Tator, and Peter Li. I appreciate all of those things and would probably, in the abstract, agree with the decision to use call-out boxes as they have been used. But, speaking just from my own individual experience of reading, I found they disrupted the flow of the text, and I would rather the material had been included in some other way.

The semantic quibble is with the use of the word "racialized." That's another term I first encountered while working on the project I mentioned above. I think the in originates in a book by British academic Robert Miles published at the end of the 1980s, but I think it was only coming into common use in Canadian anti-racism work in the late '90s or early '00s. Its political value is that it emphasizes that the subordination of non-white people, their construction as "Other" and as "inferior", is an active social process that actually happens rather than something innate, natural, or unchangeable. Now, I have understood this term to include all people who experience racialization, which would include both indigenous people (people who are both racialized and actively experiencing colonization on their own land) and people of colour (people who are racialized and live in diaspora from the part of the world their ancestors called home). There are important reasons to continue to have terms that recognize the standpoints and political projects of those two groups are distinct because of different relationships to the land. But, as far as I understand it, both do experience racialization as an important part of their oppressions.

Galabuzi, on the other hand, uses "racialized" as a synonym for "people of colour", and deliberately dis-includes indigenous people. This is all done quite openly and honestly, and unlike the wishy-washy, half-articulated ownership of scope in the book I recently reviewed on racial profiling in Canada, it is quite clear and up-front, which is definitely the way to make such choices. And I'm just some white guy with a blog and Galabuzi is a leading Canadian expert in the field, so my opinion may not be worth a whole lot, but I'll share it anyway: I have no issue with the choice of scope for the book, and in fact it is not at all my business, as a white would-be ally, when and how indigenous and people of colour politics should come together and when they should stand separately. But I have discomfort around the choice of language. I worry that the tendency to use the term "racialized" as a functional equivalent of the federal census term "visible minority," however convenient that might be for talking about statistics from this single most important source, will lead to what is powerful about the former term being leached away. I worry that this helps disconnect the term from pointing to the social and historical processes it is supposed to point to because it fails to include some of those people who experience their own particular variants of those processes. And I worry that such a disconnection would ultimately erode the sharpness and power of our political language. I freely admit I may be making too much of this, and I may be making a point in contrast to a shift in usage that has already reached a consensus, but I'm still not sure it's the best way for the language to evolve.

Like I said, quibbles.

Pushing the Envelope

Any good piece of progressive social policy analysis or research, even when geared towards entry into elite policy discourse, will include information and analysis that is useful to social movements. This is true of the better material produced by government funded agencies and even some material produced in the more progressive arms of the state itself. Canadian Economic Apartheid definitely does this -- it isn't the fiery pamphlet, but it sure contains a lot of stuff that will be useful to you if you want to write the fiery pamphlet.

However, part of what I really like about this book is that it goes beyond this. Not so far that it leaves the realm of policy discourse -- it names capitalism only a handful of times, it doesn't directly enter into discussion of how to build necessary movements, it doesn't talk about dynamics within racialized communities that might help or hinder such movement building (such as class stratification within communities), it doesn't point to models of organizing in Canada or elsewhere that show promise. At the same time, it goes farther in certain areas than many mainstream progressive policy analyses.

One thing I liked is that it repeatedly and insistently links the dynamics it traces to neoliberalism and the shifting role of the state -- it talks about capitalism mostly without having to name it, if you like:

Late 20th-century intensification of racial segregation in the labour market is located within the context of the neo-liberal restructuring of the global economy. The shift toward neo-liberal forms of governance and labour market deregulation aimed at flexible labour deployment is calculated to achieve maximum exploitation of labour. Because of persistent historical structures of systemic discrimination, the growing dominance of flexible work arrangements in this liberalized environment, facilitated by the state deregulation of the labour market and the reversal of state anti-discriminatory polices and programs, has disproportionately impacted racialized groups. [p. 7]

Another key feature is that it tackles the problem of elite motivation more effectively than a lot of material produced by progressive policy analysts. Many such analysts still have not come to terms with the fact that the era of the social democratic compromise is long over, that the space opened up by revolution and the threat of revolution has closed dramatically and Canadian elites simply are not interested in, say, reducing homelessness in this country or reducing gender inequality because they do not have to be interested. This book, however, invokes (in suitably understated academic language) what elites have to lose if they do not make policy changes that address the problem outlined -- fairly non-specific references to "disorder" if current trends are allowed to continue, that immediately for me brought to mind the recent riots in France; and a number of mentions of the potential of radical renewal for the labour movement if it were to reorient its organizing energies and aggressively pursue anti-racist practice, which reinvigorates the old threat of revolution if things don't get better.

Galabuzi is more restrained in his section addressed to the labour movement in the final chapter of recommendations, but he lays out on pages seven and eight what I think will be the key in determining how the trends discussed in this book shift over the next three decades:

But while racialization of class formation furthers the oppression of racialized groups by intensifying their social exclusion, it also makes it possible to engage in a racially conscious class-based struggle and workplace-based politics of resistance in response to the neo-liberal political project. Ironically, the racializing of the division of labour may serve to undermine the neo-liberal project by mobilizing racialized workers in solidaristic formations based in workplaces where they predominate, but share with other non-racialized workings [sic], and by tapping into their shared experience of class-based social exclusion. The contradictions of the late 20th- and early 21st-century capitalist accumulation make possible a process of class formation rooted both in the common experience of precarious wage relations and in the cultural experience of racialization.

Like I said, he didn't write the fiery pamphlet -- that was a deliberate political choice. Instead, he wrote a book that refuses to cede the ground in policy discourse to the right because policy discourse does feed into what happens in real life, and he wrote a book that those of us interested in fiery pamphlets and related activities can take up and use to deepen our understanding and to enhance our efforts.

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


Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Scott said...

The above comment was removed because it was comment spam -- ostensibly progressive political comment spam, but comment spam nonetheless.

To the poster, if you happen back: C'mon, dude. You find this post through a generalized search for "canadian politics" and within fourteen seconds -- that is, fast enough to indicate you haven't read a word I've written -- you have posted a comment that has nothing to do with the topic of the post and that has obviously just been cut and pasted in. Do you honestly expect to be given the time of day if you treat the work on the sites you are posting to with such disrespect? I don't necessarily mind comments that are off-topic if they show an interest in engagement over some issue or other, so if you want to try again in a way that demonstrates that you wish to have some dialogue, go ahead, but I have no interest in tolerating spam of any kind.

Scott said...

Please check out my more formal review of this book printed in Upping the Anti #6.

Scott said...

[Comment spam deleted.]