Let's do a thought experiment.
Imagine you are riding on the subway; at one stop, a group of teenage girls comes in. They're talking loudly, even shouting in their youthful ebullience and oblivion. It's annoying; you roll your eyes and turn up the volume on your iPod.
Now let's switch this for a group of white boys, same age, same gregariousness. They're loud, they might swing on the bars, slap their friends in fun. These lads frustrate you - it's totally not cool for them and their lack of discipline to disrupt your ride.
Finally, picture it's a group of black boys. They're doing the same thing as the previous two groups - dressing like teens, talking like teens; do you feel any different? Is it annoyance, frustration, or fear that grips you?
The behaviour remains the same - it's the package that changes, and that's what we react to most.
As an observer of humanity, I love the subway for the interactions it presents. I watch individuals, and groups, and look for every tick of language and behaviour to see what it tells me.
The truth is, as a society and as individuals, we are stigmatic. We judge what and who we see on immediate relevance to us first; in real-time situations, we feel there is no time to commit sociology.
We know that young black males are more likely to commit crimes, more likely to be violent and more likely to "pack heat" and therefore, they instinctively make us uneasy, especially if they're in groups.
But do we really know that, or do we accept or feel that? If so - how, why? You can point to statistics about the number of black kids in prisons, but scratch a little further and you'll find that police are doing the same thing as everyone else - being harder on black people than anyone else. Besides, the statistics can tell many other stories.
Are there black youth who sell drugs or break property, so on and so forth? Sure. There are white people, and East Asian people and all kinds of folk who do the same thing, but they don't make the same self-reinforcing headlines because they don't feed are pre-existing narrative of blacks = dangerous.
Dangerous, or lazy. That's another stereotype - the lazy black youth, not committing to education, not hustling to find a job, etc. Expecting the world to be handed to them, carelessly impregnating women and then taking no responsibility.
Again, what's this based on?
I know really smart, passionate and action-oriented black people. I know lazy, reactive white people. I know tall East Asians and short Northern Europeans - so what? Strengths and weaknesses can crop up anywhere, regardless of social setting.
There are modestly capable sons and daughters from Rosedale who will have incredible opportunities dropped in their lap because of factors other than their actual skills. There are also wickedly passionate and intelligent youth in places like Lawrence Heights who will get arrested for standing up to police using nothing but legal arguments.
Shouldn't we be looking to support the strengths/mitigate the weaknesses of all youth equally? If we don't, how's that good for the whole of our economy or society - or is the whole public good not the goal?
When it comes to talent recruitment or problem identification, we have internal lists of usual suspects. It's a stereotype that pervades employment and crime: an Asian kid applying for a tech job has an inherent advantage over a white or black one based on cultural sterotypes for the exact same reason a black kid committing a misdemeanor will be, on average, treated more aggressively than a white one.
Why is this? If you're a racist, you might assume it really is a black-person problem, or a First Nations problem, etc. best contained so as not to cause harm to the rest of us. Besides, this means there will always be a source of cheap labour to do the jobs we don't want to and just needing strong supervision to keep them in line.
If you're a sociology-committer, you may peer back in time and look at the pervasive socio-cultural context of imperialism, slavery and segregationist policies and come to the conclusion that we have a structural problem that has been imposed on black people, forcing them into a sort of learned helplessness and, where individuals stand up or push harder, the barriers between them and success are far greater than for Euro-Canadian peers.
We find both of these frames present in the current Toronto electoral conversation, though on the margins as such issues have yet to grab headlines.
Cops need more resources to tackle pervasive crime perpetrated primarily by black youth. Tough on crime, safe streets, isolate the problem for the convenience for the rest of us.
Or, there's the line of the White Saviour
- I can help those black kids and, in turn, keep them from doing you harm. Only I
can stop the problem; they
won't go anywhere without me
It's retail politics, this - a reinforcement of the broader frame of our times which, ironically, is rather similar to the narrative of learned helplessness that impacts the city's marginalized communities: you don't worry about it, let me take care of everything.
There's something to this narrative of learned helplessness or inaction - something pervasive. Job opportunities for youth in marginalized neighbourhoods are subsidized and tend to be focused on the low-end; programming tends to be imposed, rather than co-developed and focus on things like bbqs and basketball games instead of processes that build leadership, financial and planning skills.
Services are provided, programs are implemented - the communities have learned that these come and go. What they don't see so much of, however, is empowerment.
If you think that a given group of people (including your own) aren't able be leaders of their own success, you're stigmatizing them. It's as easy as that.
It's just as true as a perspective we impose on others as it is on the one we accept for ourselves. You can blame it on whoever; the main thing is, these imposed perspectives of helplessness - an inability to overcome personal/imposed challenges or to do anything for the challenges of others, expect through being the boss - are a problem.
Not the people. The perspective. When perspectives change, so does the capability of the people.
Thing is, we are loathe to change our perspective (especially when doing so points out uncomfortable truths about ourselves). What catalyzes us to action tends to be trauma; think of the flurry of programs that were created in the wake of Danzig
, or the concern that was raised following the murder of Jane Creba
It all depends on your point of view.
However all of this is reactive stuff - treating the lead poisoning instead of looking upstream at the pipe.
What is our goal here - to isolate a threat so it doesn't bother us? That's segregationist, period. To build our personal brands, or political brands, as saviours? That's not sustainable, either - one, it doesn't work and two, even if it does in minute fashion, as soon as that saviour is gone the community will revert to how it was before.
If either of these are the case, we've identified the wrong problem. The goal should always be sustainability; teach to fish rather than provide a fish.
This, of course, requires a massive change of perspective. We need to stop looking at those black kids on the subway as a potential threat and instead, understand them as opportunities for success.
We're making soup - or, more aptly phrased, we're helping marginalize communities and their individual community members make their own soup. Accepting that people are people, we start at the basics: What are the barriers to success? What are absent resources and opportunities that could lead to success?
How might we profit (and reduce both social strain and personal stress) by supporting the right kind of growth within and between communities, both physical and ethnic?
It's time we stop supporting policy that continues to marginalize communities, both externally imposed and internally head. When we focus on strengths - when we look at the passions, talents and dreams of black youth as diamonds in the rough - we can help them shine.
Fortunately, there are some candidates for Council that get this - because they are young and black, but more than that because they have the discipline and drive to empower the change we want in the world.
Council needs to be more representative. Successful people from marginalized communities have a better understanding of what barriers and bridges look like and, therefore, are better positioned to do something about them.
And since they have that direct level of connectivity, this wouldn't be a political once-in-four years exercise, but something ongoing - like actual engagement.