Racism Yardstick: It's All about Oppression
Camfield, David, Winnipeg Free Press
What is racism? Manitoba media outlets have been full of coverage of the charge that a 2012 email sent by deputy premier Eric Robinson was racist.
The controversy took off after the media reported that Osborne House CEO Barbara Judt had filed a complaint with the Manitoba Human Rights Commission alleging racism. Provincial Tory Leader Brian Pallister and others have repeated that charge. As a result, as Free Press columnist Dan Lett puts it, "Robinson has been forced to fight the allegations he is a racist."
Racism is repugnant and harmful. That's why what's most worrying about the ongoing furor is the confusion about what racism is -- and isn't.
In his 2002 book Racism: A Short History, historian George Fredrickson offers an excellent starting point for clarifying what racism is: "Racism exists when one ethnic group or historical collectivity dominates, excludes, or seeks to eliminate another on the basis of differences that it believes are hereditary and unalterable."
Fredrickson's summary contains three important insights. First, racism is a social or collective phenomenon, not simply a matter of individual behaviour. It involves a relationship between groups of people, one oppressing and the other oppressed. Of course, these groups are made up of individuals. People in the dominant group may actively practise racism, passively allow it to go on or consciously try to challenge it.
Second, a group of people who experience racism are treated as being somehow inherently different than members of the dominant group. Skin colour, other physical features, religion and cultural practices have all been singled out by dominant groups to define what makes oppressed groups inherently different.
Third, racism is entirely a creation of society. There is nothing natural about it or the different groups it creates.
As Fredrickson and many other researchers have shown, racism hasn't always existed. It spread and became a global phenomenon as European powers conquered and colonized other parts of the world.
Racism is quite different from how earlier conquerors sometimes treated the vanquished, and it's also different from how religious groups persecuted each other. With racism, the oppressed people are treated as inherently different and tainted.
Two examples illustrate this. The ancient Greeks saw people as either civilized or barbarians but this status was not something one inherited. …