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Aug 2020 | July-August Issue

Systemic Racism: The Equity Issue that is Costing our Community & Workplace
John A. Ariyo, City of Hamilton
Politicians, senior bureaucrats and other institutional leaders are struggling lately to understand the meaning of systemic racism, according to some recent news reports. While some have acknowledged it, others have denied it. Many more are not so sure what to make of it. To remove ambiguity from understanding systemic racism, it’s better to let data and evidence set the context. 
 
The 2019 report by Colour of Poverty, “Understanding the Racialization of Poverty in Ontario, Canada”, painted a poignant picture of what systemic racism looks like. For example, racialized people in Canada are significantly more likely to live in poverty, with 20.8 percent low-income earners compared to 12.2 percent of non-racialized people. In 2015, the income gap between racialized and non-racialized residents was 26 percent. Furthermore, the 2016 Census data revealed that 80 percent of Indigenous people living on reserves in Canada live in poverty. 
 
Systemic racism also rears its head in every facet of life for Black, Indigenous and other racialized communities, such as in education, health, child welfare, employment, justice, policing, immigration, housing and food security. In 2015, the high school graduation rate was 69 percent for Black students, 50 percent for Indigenous students and 84 percent for White students. Expulsion rate for Black, Indigenous, Eastern Mediterranean, Southwest Asian and other racialized students was significantly higher compared to the general student population.
 
In child welfare, despite evidence showing White families have a rate of child maltreatment that is similar to racialized families, Black and Indigenous families are far more likely to be investigated by child welfare authorities. In Toronto for example, Black residents constitute 8.5 percent of the population, but 40 percent of children in care. In Ontario, Indigenous children represent only 4.1 percent of children under the age of 15, but account for about 30 percent of foster children. 
 
There is also racialized poverty in employment. Racialized men are 24 percent more likely to be unemployed than non-racialized men, with the number being 43 percent for racialized women. In a 2018 health report, 63 percent of Indigenous people were unemployed compared to the seven percent Ontario average. 
 
There is also evidence of racial bias in policing and the justice system. In 2016, Black people comprise of 3.5 percent of the general Canadian population, but made up 10 percent of the federally incarcerated population. Similarly, in 2016, Indigenous people account for about 4.3 percent of the total Canadian population but had 25 percent and 35 percent respectively for federally-incarcerated men and women.
 
There is racialized poverty in housing and homelessness. In Canada, 50 percent of racialized people live in unaffordable homes, have inadequate housing needs or live in unsuitable dwellings. This compares to 28 percent of non-racialized homes. Indigenous people represent as much as 34 percent of the shelter population. There are also staggering data on other related systemic issues disproportionately impacting Black, Indigenous and other racialized people that space will not allow to adequately explore. 
 
Suffice it to say it is disingenuous to attribute every disproportional outcome in this data to systemic racism. In fact, there are various lifestyle choices, decisions, values and other social determinants of health that individuals make impacting their own life, career and community outcomes. However, data has shown there is a correlation between systemic racism and negative outcomes for racialized individuals in our communities and workplaces. 

 

I. WHAT IS SYSTEMIC RACISM?

 
Simply put, systemic racism is the direct and indirect action of our community institutions that has perpetuated inequality, discrimination and disparity of outcomes based on race for generations. Systemic racism can be directly visible within institutions such as lack of racialized individuals in senior leadership. It can also be painfully inconspicuous, such as racist jokes, stereotypes, prejudices, derogatory remarks, micro-aggressions and limited opportunities. 
 
From coast to coast, very few large community institutions and corporate boards can boast of reflecting racial diversity within their personnel, let alone on the senior leadership team. Systemic racism is more than organizations having a human resources recruitment policy. It’s about looking around the room to see if that policy has materialized into proportional Black, Indigenous and People of Colour (BIPOC) being hired by the organization. If not, the policy is not working because of systemic racism. 
 
In the broader community, systemic racism is evident in racialized people being followed around by mall staff while shopping, being carded more frequently on the street by the Police, being refused by a potential landlord for house rental but blamed on some other reasons, etcetera, based on race factors.  
 

II. ADDRESSING SYSTEMIC RACISM

 
Eradicating systemic racism is a journey which every community institution needs to embark upon if it is genuinely interested in advancing diversity, equity and inclusion issues. However, the preparation for that journey is as important as the destination itself to improve outcomes. For institutions and communities that are really interested in addressing systemic racism, here are the five key processes to follow:
 
I. Acknowledge the Problem
 
Any problem that is not recognized has every right to remain. Surprised about why systemic racism has endured in our communities and workplaces for generations? The number one reason is that many leaders don’t understand or acknowledge it as a problem. Some leaders who do are often more interested in a photo opportunity at community solidarity rallies. Acknowledging systemic racism is the number one step required to addressing it. The acknowledgement requires a great sense of humility and empathy.  
 
To help community institutions improve their understanding of systemic racism, here are some questions that leaders need to reflect upon:  
 
  • What does Census data show about the ethnic or demographic make-up of the community where the institution is located? 
  • Does the community data reflect the demographic make-up of the organization’s personnel?
  • How many Black, Indigenous and People of Colour are part of the senior leadership team? 
 
If the answers indicate gaps in the organization or leadership team in relation to community ethno-cultural demographics, then there is systemic racism that needs to be acknowledged and addressed. 
 
II. Listen to Black, Indigenous and People of Colour
 
Nobody understands what racism feels like unless they’ve personally experienced it. This is regardless of one’s education, training, professional experiences, having friends who are racialized or even being in a bi-racial relationship. It’s called lived-experience. Intentional and respectful engagement is required with Black, Indigenous and People of Colour (BIPOC) to better understand key issues. If senior leadership staff members genuinely listen to their BIPOC staff and racialized community stakeholders, they will likely be learning a few things, which may include: 
 
  • What it feels like often as the lone or part of a handful of racialized staff within the institution
  • How conscious and unconscious biases have often become a daily experience, with leadership not knowing, ignoring it or too busy to know
  • How crude jokes, racial profiling and stereotypes are perpetuated and often normalized at community settings and workplaces
  • How human rights complaints brought forward by racialized individuals take years to go through the system, usually adjudicated by non-racialized individuals and often with no positive results
  • Why some BIPOC staff have quit or been forced to quit their jobs in distress due to toxic work environment, work-induced mental health, bullying and discrimination 
  • What it feels like when hardwork and doing all the right things often don’t get rewarded for promotion and recognition
  • How leaders often tokenize the handful of their staff who are Black, Indigenous and People of Colour by putting them in front of camera to speak when the institution runs into equity and inclusion problems 

 

Organizations that take racism and discrimination very seriously need to listen directly to people with lived-experience, and not their so-called equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) experts. Institutions also need to further listen to their community advocate and activist groups – although their approach of speaking out might ruffle some powers that be, there is certainly some underlying message there that needs to be heard. 
 
III. Develop an Action-Based Strategy
 
Every organization has a legal, moral and business reason to ensure the rights of their racialized and equity-seeking staff are protected. And for public institutions like municipalities and other government establishments, these groups also extend beyond staff to various community equity-seeking groups. 
 
To deal with systemic racism, listening is one thing. Putting pen on paper to develop a strategy is equally important. Sadly, there are many institutions that don’t like to document what they’ve heard on racism and discrimination because they feel documenting them could potentially carry a liability. A leadership failure could be established. A reputational damage might ensue. And in some cases, a lawsuit or legal action could be taken against the organization. The bottom line is that the cost of not taking action always far exceeds taking action.
 
Developing a strategy to address systemic racism is key. The strategy comes with different names such as Anti-Racism Strategy; Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) Strategy; Anti-Racism Anti-Oppression (ARAO) Strategy, etc. Whatever name it is, it’s important that the strategy acknowledges the issues and have some specific recommendations. It’s also important to ensure the recommendations are action-specific, rather than vaguely-worded recommendations that will likely lead to no action.  Many anti-racism strategies are still sitting on the shelves today because they are not specific enough to hold anyone accountable.  
 
IV. Take Action and Set Targets
 
Acknowledge the problem, check. Listen to Black, Indigenous and People of Colour, check. Develop key recommendations, check. However, it takes more than emphatic leadership to take action, it takes courage. Often, courageous leaders walk alone on that lonely path to taking action on systemic racism because not many leaders would bother to go that far.  
 
When implementing an anti-racism strategy, things important to note include:
  • Not every action or target costs new money. In fact, majority of the actions are usually about change of attitude, respectful listening, strategic problem solving and realigning existing resources
  • All the actions cannot happen at once, prioritizing based on organizational or community need is key 
  • In many institutions, majority of systemic racism happens at the team lead, supervisor, manager or director’s levels. Senior leaders need to put in place mechanisms to better hold staff accountable that are beyond doing more staff training
  • Taking action requires setting specific goals and targets 
  • It’s important to put people who have lived-experience in charge of implementing the anti-racism strategy. 
 
V. Report on Progress
 
The best way to track progress of anti-racism strategy is to report on actions. As the saying goes, what gets measured gets done. Progress reporting doesn’t mean everything is positive, it means the organization is keeping itself accountable. 
 
Progress reporting is also a gesture of humility and accountability. It’s important to have a common space like a website, an intranet or some other tools where progress can be reported on a consistent basis and are easily accessible. Serious institutions that want to combat systemic racism need to set good examples of openness, transparency and accountability. 
 
Lastly, just because there is a strategy and progress is being tracked doesn’t mean there is no need for ongoing conversation on systemic racism. For this reason, it’s important to establish a regular conversation channel where staff and community stakeholders can meet to discuss progress and other emerging issues. 
 

III. CONCLUSION 

 
Racialized staff and community equity-seeking groups are looking for that positive experience that will continue to increase their work productivity and overall sense of community belonging. It’s not a favouritism that is being asked, it’s a matter of equity and inclusion. 
 
Data has shown systemic racism plays a big role in normalizing discrimination in our communities and workplaces for generations. However, rather than admit defeat or be complacent, it’s important to stand up and take collective action. Addressing systemic racism requires humble acknowledgement, inclusive listening, effective strategy, taking action and tracking progress. Organizations don’t have to wait to issue another solidarity statement in support of equity movements like Black Lives Matter and others. What is needed is action.
 
Community institutions that harbour systemic racism will never reach their full potential as an employer of choice, sustaining their reputation and ensuring the best of racialized staff is harnessed. Systemic racism is therefore that equity issue that is costing our community and workplace.  
 
JOHN ARIYO is the Manager of Community Initiatives for the City of Hamilton, Ontario. Based at the City Manager’s Office, his leadership is focussed on improving community outcomes by building a culture of public participation and working with diverse stakeholders to make Hamilton a more welcoming, equitable and inclusive city. John is a community strategist, volunteer, keynote speaker and capacity builder. He is the Chair of the Board of Directors of the Hamilton Immigrants Working Centre and a Director with the Hamilton Community Legal Clinic. John studied Geography & Planning and Development Studies at Bachelor’s and Master’s degree levels. He is also a certified Project Management Professional.