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The past decade has been a weird and contradictory time for race relations, Melissa Harris-Perry told a packed Ted Rogers auditorium Wednesday night.
The MSNBC host was on campus to deliver a lecture at the Nelson Mandela EDI Keynote, hosted by the Ryerson Students’ Union’s Social Justice Week.
“We like to think that we live in a post-racialized America,” said Harris-Perry.
“We have a black president so everything must be good right? We talk about racism as if it were a thing of the past, but racialized politics is something that continues today.”
Although the talk was called “From Ferguson to Toronto: Race Politics and Scholarship,” Harris-Perry focused little on the events that took place in Missouri this past August. Instead, she used the tragedy as only one example of many factors and events that contribute to systemic racism.
She says racist ideology, beginning with slavery, has been acted out on black bodies throughout American history.
She used the Academy Award-winning 2004 film, Crash, to navigate the discussion.
The film, which focuses on the intersection of race and class in America, was the beginning of a “weird decade in America,” said Harris-Perry.
She provided an example for each year following the release of the film that showed how American state institutions failed the black community, among them, Hurricane Katrina and the killing of Trayvon Martin.
Harris-Perry emphasized the point that, although we are in a post-colonial, post-confederate era and racism appears to be less apparent, this is very much not the case. She made note of the fact that many black citizens are being killed by police each year, and that a black president was elected in 2008, only two years after six black high school students were arrested and imprisoned in Louisiana after fighting back against schoolyard racism.
“They killed Trayvon Martin—a boy walking back to his dad’s house who got killed for being black and in a hoodie—and in the midst of all that, we re-elect the black president,” she said.
Because Harris-Perry focused entirely on institutional racism in the United States, Kike Roach, a Toronto-based activist and lawyer, and Ryerson politics professor Grace-Edward Galabuzi were each given time to respond to Harris-Perry and ground these issues in a Canadian context.
“Structural racism is a real thing and, increasingly, we are being told that it is not,” Galabuzi said. “We live in a world where we are being told that we have transcended that history and yet racial disparity continues to abound and proliferate.”
Galabuzi drew connections between the treatment of Canadian Aboriginal citizens, and both he and Roach shared instances of experiencing state-imposed racial disparity similar to black Americans (through police brutality and unjust treatment of black citizens.)
Galabuzi said that the multicultural ideal that Canada and, more specifically, Toronto has a reputation for is a form of “colour-blindness.”
“Multiculturalism is becoming a white-washing of history,” Galabuzi said. “Canada as a ‘raceless’ society is a cover for oppression.”
Also present at the keynote address was Denise O’Neil Green, the assistant vice-president and vice-provost of equity, diversity and inclusion.
A detailed live blog of the event can be viewed here.
We spoke to Green about the importance of last night’s event – take a look.