Racism argues that humans can be divided into different racial groups, each with characteristics that are inherited and unchanging — and that those differences explain inequality in societies.

An illustration from the Canadian Illustrated News, entitled The Heathen Chinese in British Columbia. It depicts Amor de Cosmos forcing a Chinese immigrant to leave British Columbia because he refuses to assimilate. 26 April 1879. Image: Library and Archives Canada/00269.

Racism is an ideology that holds that humans can be divided into different racial groups, each with characteristics that are inherited and unchanging. Racism argues that those differences explain inequality in societies.

Early Racism

While xenophobia or fear of those unlike ourselves has long been a part of human cultures, the concept of race first appeared in the English language around the 17th century. North Americans began to use the term in their scientific writings by the late 18th century. Racism began to be studied by scientists in the 19th century. At the time the ideology explained some political and economic conflicts in parts of the world, and legitimized the dominant role of British capitalism in the world economic system.

Racism is universal. It is evident in many different ethno-racial groups and is not limited to Caucasian groups.

By the mid-19th century, many racists believed the world’s population could be divided into a variety of races: groups of people who shared similar physical attributes, such as skin colour and hair texture. This process of race categorization is referred to as racialization and is necessary for the emergence of racism as an ideology.

Core Beliefs

Racism claims the human species can be divided into discrete biological groupings that determine the behaviour, economic, and political success of individuals within that group. This belief views races as natural and fixed subdivisions of the human species, each with its distinct and variable cultural characteristics and capacity for the development of civilizations. Thus, racists believe that biological factors can be used to explain the social and cultural variations of humans. Racism also includes the belief that there is a natural hierarchical ordering of groups of people so that superior races can dominate inferior ones. It is not a study of race, or of the present inequality of certain groups in society, but it is an assertion that inequality is absolute and unconditional.

Racist thinking presumes that differences among groups are innate and not subject to change. Thus, intelligence, attitudes and beliefs are viewed as not affected by one’s environment or history. The existence of groups at the bottom or top of the social hierarchy is interpreted as the natural outcome of an inferior or superior biological makeup and not the result of social influences. Racists reject social integration because they believe the mixing of groups would result in the degeneration of the superior group.

If biological differences are not easily discernible, racists invent biological differences (for example size of nose or colour of eyes). Racism does not exist because of the presence of objective, physical differences among humans, but rather the social recognition of and the importance attached to such differences.

Racist ideology is based upon three false assumptions: That biological differences are equal to cultural differences; that biological makeup determines the cultural achievements of a group; and that biological makeup limits the type of culture a group can develop. Research shows these assumptions are wrong and largely based on the untenable position that nature (biology) is a single causal agent. Evidence showing that differences within groups are greater than differences between groups, and that social factors have an impact on behaviour, argue strongly against racist beliefs.

Changing Racist Discourse

Racist ideology was taken to extremes in Nazi Germany during the Holocaust. After the Second World War, the concept of race became seen increasingly as an inappropriate biological description, and an integral part of a host of discredited political platforms, including eugenics.

Research today tends to focus on the genetic underpinning of human variance, such as in the Human Genome Project. One of the most significant findings of the Project is that humans are far more alike than they are different 99.9 per cent of genetic material is the same for all humans.

Scientists today tend to refer to continental ancestry over race, as this is a more exact description of what genetics reveals.

Institutional Racism

In the 1960s, the concept of racism was usually applied to the treatment of individuals and the belief that one individual was racially inferior. The term has since broadened to include institutional racism describing political, economic and social institutions that operate to the detriment of a specific individual or group. Cultural racism is based on the supposed incompatibility of cultural traditions rather than ideas of innate biological superiority.

Racism can also be reflected in the ways that social institutions operate, by denying groups of people fair and equitable treatment. In this case we talk about structure and power, otherwise known as institutional racism. This includes the power to establish what is normal, necessary and desirable and reinforces superiority or preferences for one group over another.

The Chinese head tax is an example of institutional racism. It stemmed from the belief that Chinese immigrants would be a burden on the then-predominantly White Canadian society.

Institutional racism also exists when policies or programs seem racially neutral, but either intentionally or unintentionally put minority group members at a disadvantage. As an example, in certain provinces the process for selecting citizens for jury duty results in Aboriginal people rarely being selected. These dimensions of racism reveal that power, and individuals in positions of power, can create or perpetuate racial policies or practises.

Contemporary Attitudes

In the latter half of 20th century, some North American scholars continued to argue there were racial differences at the root of social behaviours. Arthur Jensen, a professor of education at University of California Berkeley, claimed there were measurable intelligence differences between Blacks and Whites. R. Herrnstein and C. Murray supported Jensen's work and argued that general intelligence varied according to race. They claimed to have detected a pattern showing differences between Asians, Whites and Blacks. In Canada, Jean Phillipe Rushton claimed to detect a clear social and psychological ranking among Asians, Whites and Blacks, in that order, for some characteristics including sexual behaviour and intelligence. These claims have not been supported by other researchers and the results are not considered scientific.

Examples of individual and institutional racism in Canada's history are evident in its restrictive immigration policies, and in practices regarding Aboriginal people and non-White immigrants, particularly Asians, Blacks and Jews. Some of the most intense racist policies have been directed at Aboriginal people. Until 1960, Aboriginal adults could not vote in federal elections unless they first renounced their Indian Act status and gave up treaty rights.

In 1880, the Canadian government began sponsoring religious schools designed to assimilate Aboriginal children into Euro-Canadian culture. From the 1930s to the 1990s, institutions across the country were dedicated to assimilating Aboriginal children into the dominant culture. Many children were taken from their parents and subjected to humiliating abuse, scientific experiments and poor living conditions. Aboriginal culture was routinely insulted, and many students were beaten if they spoke their own language.

Metlakatla Indian Residential School Students
Aboriginal students attending the Metlakatla Indian Residential School. (Credit: William James Topley / Library and Archives Canada / C-015037)
Metlakatla Indian Residential School Students
Aboriginal students attending the Metlakatla Indian Residential School. (Credit: William James Topley / Library and Archives Canada / C-015037)

Aboriginal women are murdered or go missing in Canada at much higher rates than non-Aboriginal women a fact that many believe stems from the impact of racism. Aboriginal women account for only 4.3 per cent of Canadian women, but 16 per cent of all homicide victims.

Black Canadians have faced higher scrutiny from police and reports show evidence of racial profiling. One study found that police described 33.6 per cent of drivers stopped in Toronto by police as Black, compared to about 8.1 per cent of the total population being Black.

Fighting Racism

Over the past quarter-century, the provincial and federal governments have implemented laws to combat racism. In some cases the government has taken individuals for example, Jim Keegstra and Ernst Zundel to court under hate propaganda laws, in an attempt to stop them from spreading their racist beliefs. While blatant racist ideology is uncommon (see Ku Klux Klan) examples of racist beliefs are still evident. Today, racism and discrimination is more commonly experienced by visible minorities even though Statistics Canada predicts that by 2017, more than 20 per cent of the population will be a visible minority.

Canada has federal and provincial laws to protect individuals, groups, and cultural expressions. However, forms of racism and discrimination persist. The Canadian Human Rights Act makes it discriminatory to communicate hatred. The Act protects Canadians from public statements that promote hatred, or incite hate against an identifiable group based on their ethnicity and/or skin colour.

The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms specifically addresses the constitutional rights that are necessary in a democratic society, and all Canadian law must be consistent with the Charter. The equality of all Canadians is protected under the Charter. The Charter also protects certain rights guaranteed to Aboriginal peoples, and it affirms Canada's multicultural heritage.

Charter of Rights and Freedoms
Copy of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (courtesy Dept of Secretary of State, Canada).
Charter of Rights and Freedoms
Copy of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (courtesy Dept of Secretary of State, Canada).

The Canadian Human Rights Act prohibits discrimination based on individual characteristics including race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, age, gender, sexual orientation or marital status. The Canadian Multiculturalism Act protects groups from cultural discrimination and is a commitment to new Canadians that they may retain aspects of their culture in Canada. Other key pieces of legislation include the Criminal Code of Canada (which prohibits the promotion of hatred and hate propaganda), and the Employment Equity Act, which protects against discriminatory hiring practices that disadvantage women, Aboriginal peoples, persons with disabilities and members of visible minorities.

Further Reading

  • R. Carter, "The Politics of Provenance: Genetics, Culture and identity," in Racism and Justice, S. Hier, D. Lett and B. Bolaria (eds.) (2009); A. Fleras, Unequal Relations (2010); Hier, S. and B. Bolaria (eds.). Race and Racism in 21st Century Canada (2007); Satzewich, V. and N. Liodakis, 'Race' and Ethnicity in Canada (2007); E. Kallen, Ethnicity and Human Rights in Canada (1995); R. Miles, Racism (1989); F.C. Henry, W. Mathis and T. Rees The Colour of Democracy (1995).

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