Race is an artificial and arbitrary social construct, and there is no biological or scientific basis for the racial distinctions we make between people. It is a function of our history and our misconceptions of how people have existed or migrated around the world, and our racial definitions have changed drastically over time based on different environmental and social factors.
Given the lack of objective basis for racial definitions, some people query why we track racial statistics in society at all. Doing so has the potential to ingrain these social constructs and divisions even further, and prevent us from treating all human beings equally.
The problem is that we do not treat all humans equally, and even if we stopped tracking racial statistics, the effects of the erroneous beliefs around races would still persist and have an effect on policies and practices in society. One example of this in Canada would be how we treat Indigenous and Black children in the child welfare system. Although advocates from these communities have long complained about inequitable treatment by institutions such as the Children’s Aid Society, there was no ability by these individuals to obtain the information to demonstrate a systemic problem.
That changed this week, with the release of a new report by the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC), which provided the results from a 2-year inquiry into the child welfare system to provide race-based data and data collection practices. The OHRC has the power under the Code to request this type of information, and then make further investigations as to whether the “structures, policies, processes, decision-making practices and organizational cultures adversely affect Indigenous and Black families, and potentially violate Ontario’s Human Rights Code.”
What the OHRC found was that there was a disproportionately high indices of Indigenous and Black children across Ontario in many of these agencies. Indigenous children were over-represented in admissions statistics at 93% of agencies, Black children were over-represented at 30% of agencies, and White children were under-represented at 56% of agencies. These findings will be a first step to then review policies, protocols, forms, systems and training, to better understand these disparities and properly address them.
Many of these underlying issues will require consideration of social and economic issues that contribute towards this situation, but will also require better collection practices by child welfare agencies. Some of the statistics for Indigenous children are likely underrepresented, as the information in this study was limited to non-Indigenous agencies. The provincial government in Ontario is considering a directive to these agencies to require them to collect human rights-based data, and Ontario’s Anti-Racism Directorate is also developing standards and guidelines for how race-based data should be collected.
The report contains 25 recommendations, which include a provincial strategy that should include collection of race-based data, amending the Human Rights Code to add “social condition” as a protected ground of discrimination, and staff within the Ministry of Children and Youth Services (MCYS) with greater expertise in anti-racism policies. Child welfare agencies should look at disproportionality data and investigate whether it can be attributed to systemic racial discrimination, and address those root causes.
Where elements of systemic racial discrimination does exist, recommendation 25 provides concrete steps in which to address it:
- Demonstrating strong leadership that shows that racial discrimination will not be tolerated
- Establishing stable and long-term resources within the agency dedicated to human rights and equity activity
- Removing any bias or adverse impacts that exist in the agency’s rules, standards, formal and informal policies, procedures, decision-making practices and organizational culture
- Investigating any alleged discriminatory conduct and taking corrective action where it is substantiated, up to and including dismissal
- Providing further anti-racism and cultural competency training to staff and management.
- Developing special programs to address the specific needs of Indigenous and/or racialized clients and increase hiring of Indigenous and racialized staff
- Creating anti-discrimination and harassment policies that explicitly define racial discrimination as a type of discrimination that is illegal and provide relevant examples
- Creating accountability mechanisms, such as complaints and disciplinary procedures
- Building dialogue and relationships with racialized and Indigenous groups in the community
- Undertaking comprehensive organizational development projects that incorporate the elements above
- Publicly reporting on measures to address any issues identified.
The correct approach is to track and measure racial disparities, in child welfare agencies and society at large, simply as a tool to flag and identify where problems may exist. Racial discrimination or systemic discrimination may still exist, even if underlying data fails to demonstrate quantitatively that it does.
The response to this type of discrimination though is more resources and education for all the parties involved that races and the social constructions that are often unwittingly used and result in discrimination are erroneous, not based in evidence, and are fictions of our popular narratives.
The tracking of the prevalence of accepted mythologies need not perpetuate those misunderstandings, if that information is used for the appropriate purposes.