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Editorial: Beyond solidarity — The Varsity advocates for action against anti-Black racism

Calling on U of T, governments, journalism community to eradicate anti-Blackness in the midst of global protests
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Protesters marching in Toronto on May 30.JASON HARGROVE/CC FLICKR
Protesters marching in Toronto on May 30.JASON HARGROVE/CC FLICKR

The Varsity stands in firm solidarity with Black communities at U of T in the ongoing global struggle against police brutality and anti-Black racism.

We urge the U of T community, governments, and the journalism community to take action against anti-Blackness. Go beyond solidarity statements and do the work that needs to be done in order to erase anti-Blackness in our own local contexts.

Protests erupted in the United States following the police killing of George Floyd, a Black man. These protests have been echoed in Canada, with the death of Regis Korchinski-Paquet, an Afro-Indigenous woman, on May 27 in Toronto. Even more recently, Chantel Moore, an Indigenous woman, was killed by police in New Brunswick. These deaths are among dozens of Black and Indigenous lives that have been lost to racial injustice in recent memory. 

In general, white folks and non-Black racialized communities must act in ways that support our Black communities. That includes donating, signing petitions that demand justice for lost Black lives, and educating ourselves on how to challenge anti-Blackness in our communities and organizations. Allies must ask themselves what they are willing to put on the line and give up — including time, resources, and labour — in order for Black lives to truly matter and flourish.

Acknowledging anti-Blackness in our own backyard 

We must first challenge the belief that Canada is unlike the United States with regard to police brutality and systemic anti-Blackness. We are not a post-racial society. We need to confront these issues.

The protests in Toronto are not simply in solidarity with the American protests; they are a reaction to Canada’s own reality. We must not forget, for example, that Canada was also historically complicit in exploiting enslaved African labour.

To actualize a better future for Black people, we must acknowledge the historical connections between anti-Black racism, settler colonialism, and policing on this continent. In the United States, policing has roots in slave patrols, which surveilled enslaved African people. Similarly, Canada’s first prime minister created what would become the Royal Canadian Mounted Police for the very purpose of dispossessing Indigenous peoples off their land. Today, Indigenous peoples constitute nearly one third of those incarcerated in our federal prison system. 

According to a 2018 report by the Ontario Human Rights Commission, Black people are 20 times more likely to be shot and killed by police in Toronto compared to white people. When Black people are disproportionately harassed, carded, arrested, and murdered by police, it is not an unfortunate side effect that can be absolved with simple policy and reform; it is the system functioning the way it was designed.

Canada needs to step down from its egalitarian pedestal — a pedestal that can only stand because we actively disregard Black and Indigenous pain. We must take ownership of our violence and create new systems of justice, education, health care, and more that will benefit all. That change can start here at the university. 

U of T must invest in anti-racism education, collect race-based data

At this watershed moment, we cannot accept platitudes or empty statements from those in power. We cannot be satisfied by the performance of Justin Trudeau and police officers kneeling, or U of T statements about “stand[ing] in solidarity” that lack substantial, concrete plans of action. Some of our leaders fail to even do this much. Before backtracking on his words, Doug Ford diminished the existence of systemic racism in Canada.

U of T may point to the targeted hiring of Black faculty, the Black Student Application Program in the Faculty of Medicine, and the Black Future Lawyers program as evidence of progress. These are important developments but they do not go nearly far enough.

U of T should seriously consider concrete demands to invest in Blackness through its academic policy. Right now, the UTM Black Students’ Association is circulating a petition to implement a mandatory anti-racism course at the university. In 2016, the Black Liberation Collective called for a standalone African and Caribbean studies department. These efforts are indicative of a greater issue in U of T’s education: the lack of courses available that unearth the Black community’s experiences and history in Canada. 

The Varsity calls on U of T to use education as a tool to illuminate the oft-neglected history of Black folks and facilitate the conversation of what the road ahead should look like. 

U of T must also address a more fundamental issue: the lack of race-based data collection. 

In response to the #BlackonCampus movement in 2016, the university made a commitment to collect race-based data on its students. Without this data, there can be no substantial steps made to quantify gaps and elevate Black presence and success at the university.

The Varsity calls on the University of Toronto to provide a progress report on its collection of race-based data and dedicate itself to becoming a champion for the collection of race-based data nationally.

Governments must collect data, consider defunding the police  

The lack of data collection also extends to the country at large. This failure leaves the public in the dark about the reality of the country’s race relations.

That is why the Canadian and Ontario governments must also adopt race-based data collection, as is currently advocated for by the federal New Democratic Party. Such data is instrumental to identify gaps in social outcomes, undertake informed policy measures to improve the lives of Black and Indigenous peoples, and hold governments accountable in cases of inaction.

Governments, both municipal and federal, must also listen to Black activists’ demands when it comes to defunding the police. 

It is time to evaluate how justified the Toronto police’s $1 billion budget — the largest item in the City of Toronto’s operating budget — is, relative to other services. To do so is to reimagine public safety. 

Rather than fund policing and enforcement practices that, researchers say, do not address the root causes of violence, it is critical to increase public investment in social services and support structures that can actually rectify public safety challenges and uplift vulnerable communities. 

In circumstances of people experiencing mental health crises, for example, we must invest more in mental health care workers who can de-escalate these situations and provide appropriate care to those in need, rather than rely on police officers who are ill-equipped and often resort to violence. In recent memory, several Black people with mental illnesses, like D’Andre Campbell and Andrew Loku, have been killed by police in the GTA. 

In its own context, U of T must also rectify the ways in which campus police have exacerbated harm, rather than ensured safety for students. For example, last fall, a UTM student who was experiencing a mental health crisis was allegedly met with force and handcuffed by police, rather than handled with appropriate care.

While calls to radically alter the structure of police may seem ambitious, they are neither unsubstantiated nor unprecedented. Following Floyd’s death, the Minneapolis City Council announced its intent to work to disband its police. A 2017 report showed that New York experienced 2,100 fewer crime complaints when its police department reduced its presence and curtailed aggressive enforcement tactics.

We can enact similar change in Toronto. After all, this is the time to be ambitious. 

Confronting anti-Blackness in the journalism community 

The Varsity also recognizes that media organizations must challenge their own anti-Blackness.

Consider, for example, how the CBC had overlooked Black Lives Matter activist Sandy Hudson for an interview when she wanted to discuss police defunding, or conveniently edited out footage of police brutality during a peaceful protest in New York. 

Consider how the National Post irresponsibly provided a platform to Rex Murphy, a political and social commentator, who claimed that Canada is not a racist country. 

Consider how The New York Times produced a headline on their cover legitimizing Trump’s calls for violence against the protests and published an opinion piece that supported the use of military force against protesters.

The media’s attempt to pretend that there can be debate, neutrality, and balance when it comes to anti-Black racism is dangerous and irresponsible. By doing so, the media ensures that Black journalists remain unsupported and unheard, state violence is not held to account, and the reality of race relations remains obscured. 

In this context, we must understand the ways in which Black journalists are doubly burdened, as Black people must professionally cover the stories of violence that affect them so personally. 

Earlier this year, the Canadian Association of Black Journalists and the Canadian Journalists of Colour released a list of calls to action in order for the media “to be equitable and truly representative of Canada’s racial diversity.” We call on all journalistic organizations in Canada to look inward, make empowering spaces for Black journalists, and take concrete action to more accurately and fairly cover racial injustice. 

The Varsity’s plan of action 

We recognize that student newspapers like The Varsity must also take such action. To begin, we must openly take responsibility for our failings. We recognize that our masthead and contributor base lacks sufficient representation from Black and Indigenous communities. We recognize that, in our past, we have failed the Black community at U of T by publishing material such as a story in our 2007 satirical issue that featured blackface.

We take full responsibility for these actions, and we are committed to continuing and extending our efforts to change The Varsity as a newspaper. 

This past year, we have undergone masthead-wide diversity training addressing Indigenous cultural competency, racism, and gender and sexual diversity; produced an equity guide to ensure responsible content; expanded our coverage of equity-seeking communities, including our first Black History Month issue; and implemented our first internal demographic survey. 

However, these measures alone are not sufficient. We commit ourselves to propelling further equity-based changes at The Varsity.

Moving forward, we are instituting an equity board on our masthead to coordinate our equity measures in a systematic and centralized way. We intend to apply our findings from the demographic survey to guide our outreach and recruitment efforts; acquire community feedback to further develop our equity guide; reinforce diversity training; build and strengthen relationships with equity-seeking community leaders; and hold our masthead accountable with regard to equitable content. 

More immediately, in light of the unique mental health challenges faced by Black journalists at this time, we have also made the small effort to donate $200 to the Black Journalists Therapy Relief Fund. We call on all student newspapers to similarly donate what they can to causes surrounding the protests. 

Ultimately, we endeavour to continue to do better when it comes to the quantity and quality of coverage that affirms Black and Indigenous life. We want to ensure that we make more space for Black and Indigenous students to be here, to move up, and to flourish.

The Varsity’s editorial board is elected by the masthead at the beginning of each semester. For more information about the editorial policy, email [email protected]