Racism in North America

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This article describes the state of race relations and racism in North America. The form that racism takes from country to country may be different for historic, cultural, religious, economic or demographic reasons.


Several academic statements have alluded to the notion that racism and ethnic discrimination are deep, inherent and fundamental aspects of North American society. Author Dereck Bell stated that "what we designate as racial progress is not a solution. It is a regeneration of the problem in a particularly perverse form. Racism is an integral, permanent and indestructible component of this society. Americans achieve a measure of social stability through their unspoken pact to keep blacks on the bottom... black people will never achieve full equality in this country." American Political scientist Andrew Hacker wrote that "Most white people believe that persons with African ancestries are more likely to carry primitive traits in their genes ... I may believe this and hate myself for believing it." Legal scholar Charles Lawrence, speaking about the American political elite and ignorants said their "cultural belief system has influenced all of us, we are all racists."[1] Philosopher Cornel West has stated that "racism is an integral element within the very fabric of American culture and society. It is embedded in the country's first collective definition, enunciated in its subsequent laws, and imbued in its dominant way of life."[2]



In a 2013 survey of 80 countries by the World Values Survey, Canada ranked among the most racially tolerant societies in the world.[3] Canadians freely use the term "visible minority" to refer to all people of colour. This legally recognized term is entrenched in Canada's Employment Equity Act of 1995.[4] The UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination told Canada that the term “Visible Minority” is offensive and racist.[5]

Canada's treatment of First Nations people is governed by the Indian Act. Many indigenous people were assimilated into the Canadian Indian residential school system. European settlers assumed the indigenous people needed saving; this is a form of "charitable racism"[6] In 1999 the Canadian government created an autonomous territory, Nunavut, for the Inuit living in the Arctic and Northernmost parts of the country. The Inuit compose 85% of the population of Nunavut, which represents a new level of self-determination for the indigenous people of Canada.[7] In August 2008, McGill University's Chancellor and International Olympic Committee representative Richard Pound made a statement in an interview with La Presse in which he said : "We must not forget that 400 years ago, Canada was a land of savages, with scarcely 10,000 inhabitants of European origin, while in China, we're talking about a 5,000-year-old civilization,".[8] This is seen as a painful reminder that the Aboriginal peoples of Canada still struggle to gain acceptance as a nation that was equal to the British nation.

Racism against Indigenous Women[edit]

In 2006, Amnesty International researched racism specific to Indigenous women in Canada.[9] They report on the lack of basic human rights, discrimination, and violence against Indigenous women. Violence against First Nations women (age 25-44) with status under the Indian Act are five times more likely than other women of the same age, to die as a result of violence.[10] Indigenous women’s bodies have been labelled as “dirty.” Feminist researcher Andrea Smith[11] states that by labelling bodies as dirty they become targets for abuse and rape. Another form of racist violence is through sterilization programs in residential schools. From 1928 to the mid 1990s Indigenous girls in the residential school system were subject to forced sterilization once they reached puberty. The number of sterilzed girls is not known because the records were destroyed.[12]

There are notable records of slavery in Canada from the 17th century. More than half of all Canadian slaves were aboriginal,[citation needed] and the United Empire Loyalists brought their slaves with them after leaving what became the United States. In 1793 the Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada, John Graves Simcoe, passed the Act Against Slavery making it illegal to bring slaves into the colony, and mandating the gradual emancipation of all slaves in Upper Canada.[13] In 1834 slavery was outlawed in Canada. While most of the emancipated slaves of African descent were sent to settle Freetown in Sierra Leone, those who remained primarily lived in segregated communities such as Africville outside Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Starting in 1858, Chinese "coolies" were brought to Canada to work in the mines and on the Canadian Pacific Railway. These new immigrants were denied the rights of citizenship, including the right to vote, and in the 1880s, "head taxes" were implemented to curtail immigration from China. In 1907 a riot in Vancouver targeted Chinese and Japanese-owned businesses. In 1923 the federal government passed the Chinese Immigration Act, commonly known as the Exclusion Act, prohibiting further Chinese immigration except under "special circumstances". Japanese Canadians were also subject to anti-Asian racism, particularly during World War II when many Canadians of Japanese heritage — even those who were born in Canada — were forcibly moved to internment camps. The Canadian government officially apologized and made restitution for the treatment of Japanese Canadians in 1988.[14] The Exclusion Act was repealed in 1947, the same year in which the right to vote was extended to Chinese Canadians. In 1967 all racial restrictions on immigration to Canada were repealed, and Canada adopted the current points based system.

Throughout the years, many high-profile cases of racism against Black Canadians have occurred in Nova Scotia, giving it the title of "The Mississippi of the North".[15][16] The province in Atlantic Canada continues to battle racism with an annual march to end racism against people of African descent.[17][18]

Anglophone and Francophone relations[edit]

Anglophone and Francophone relations in Canada are sensitive because of differences in ethnicity, language and provincial separatism (Quebec being a notable example). For centuries after the British annexation of New France, the French-speaking population of Quebec and other provinces felt victimized by discrimination, under-representation and disrespect of their culture and language. Currently, this is reflected by the perception of Quebec Bashing in the anglophone media.

On the other side, Anglophones feel that the imposition of laws in Quebec that reduce the presence of English, such as bill 101, 22 and 78, as well as the proposed new bill, which places further restrictions on Anglophones, as well as the well-publicized recent actions of the language police ("pastagate", "spoon gate") have led to the rise of an anti-English attitude in Quebec. Other proposed laws, such as the upcoming "secularism law", as well as the debate over the wearing of religious symbols in soccer, has led to a growing belief among minorities that francophones in Quebec are uncomfortable with groups that are not "pure-laine" Quebecers.

The Canadian parliament has tried uniting Canadians through bilingualism and has recognized the French, along with the English, as the “founding people(s) of Canada.” Canadians claim to strongly oppose racism in public discourse, believing that multiculturalism is a cherished national tradition.

Canada does have a tragic history of racism and intolerance: The racial segregation of African-Canadians in public schools in Ontario, instances of anti-Semitism in rural Quebec where the Roman Catholic Church is prominent, quotas of jewish student at McGill and Toronto University. Until 1954 the church held a seat on the Quebec provincial government. After the legal persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses during World War II, the Quebec government was ordered to remove the official state church clause dating to colonial times. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries Indo-Canadians, (South Asians, Indians) and PolynesianKanakas” were considered a source of labour for mines, railroads and farms and faced discrimination from whites.

National media attention has focused on the number of Aboriginal Canadians who report police brutality and harassment, including unlawful stops and seizures, racial slurs and stereotyping as “Indian drunks or druggies or bandits.”

Trinidad and Tobago[edit]

The island nation of Trinidad and Tobago is a melting pot of cultures, yet it is also a place of tension between the politically and economically empowered Afro-Caribbeans and Indo-Caribbeans. Trinidad and Tobago is home to approximately 1.3 million people, with 95% living on Trinidad and 5% living on Tobago. Around 39% of Trinidadians are of African descent, 40% are of Indian descent and a small population are of European descent. Africans usually live in urban areas, notably the East-West corridor, while Indians usually live in the rural areas surrounding the sugar cane plantations.

Although both ethnic groups mix fairly well in daily life, racism exists on every level of society. It is thought that the British colonial government created the racial melange to divert attention away from the few whites at the highest ends of business and government. Tension existed between the two ethnic groups from the day African slaves achieved emancipation and Indians arrived to work on the sugar plantations.


Racism in Mexico has a long history.[19] Historically, Mexicans with light skin tones had absolute control over dark skinned Amerindians due to the structure of the Spanish colonial caste system. Generally White Mexicans have made up the majority of Mexico's upper class and as such, many White Mexicans feel a sense of superiority over the Amerindian population who tend to be predominantly of low income. In Mexico, people who are darker-skinned or of indigenous descent make up the majority of the working classes, while lighter-skinned Mexicans of Spanish descent typically make up the majority of the upper class. It should be noted however that a White Mexicans particularly make up the of the poor in the rural North of Mexico and that in Southern Mexico, particularly in the states of Yucatan and Chiapas Amerindians make up a large part of the upper class.[20]

When a Mexican of a darker-skinned tone marries one of a lighter skinned-tone, it is common for them say that they are “ 'making the race better' (mejorando la raza)." This can be interpreted as a self-attack on their ethnicity.[21]

Racism against Indigenous Mexicans[edit]

Since colonial times there has been a stigma attached to Indigenous culture and society. It was officially taught in Mexico until the mid-1940s that Indigenous culture and ways of life were inherently incorrect. Because of this, Indigenous culture, art, education and languages were repressed. Indigenous peoples could not advance unless they abandoned their Indigenous ways and embraced Hispanic Mexican ways of life. Mexicans who retained their indigenous identity were harshly discriminated against for not accepting a Hispanisized way of life and as such were not allowed social advancement in Mexican society. Because of these factors, there remains a belief among many Mexicans, that anything Amerindian is inherently wrong and as such Indigenous Mexicans are looked at as inferior.

Today in Mexico this general ideology of class division based on skin color has not changed. In the last two decades many Amerindians have integrated into the middle class and held high ranking positions in society whilst retaining their indigenous identity; despite this, racism against Amerindians continues as there is a general idea among many non Indigenous Mexicans that Indigenous Mexicans are inherently inferior regardless of income level or social standing. To escape this discrimination many indigenous Mexicans historically embraced Hispanic identity. There is a common stereotype in Mexico that as one becomes wealthier or more well of in society that one must become Whiter to be considered being in upper class or else their capacity to advance socially is limited. Historically, the Mexican government has actively been involved in suppressing Amerindian peoples and has supported racialist policies against the Indigenous population, many times violently. However, following the opening of the Mexican political system, the Mexican government has reversed these practices and now is actively assisting in the development and advancement of Indigenous communities in Mexico.

Television media in Mexico has shown time and time again many dehumanizing images of and has made much mockery towards Indigenous Mexicans and therefore this prevailing discrimination in Mexican media has led to many false misconceptions of Indigenous Mexican which has cost modern Mexican society the ability to properly educate about co-existence between Indigenous Mexicans and the rest of Mexican society.[22]

Despite improving economic and social conditions of Indigenous Mexicans, discrimination against Indigenous Mexicans continues to this day and there are few laws to protect Indigenous Mexicans from discrimination. Violent attacks against indigenous Mexicans are moderately common and many times go unpunished.[23]

Racism against Africans in Mexico[edit]

In towns around the southern parts of Mexico which neighbor with Belize there is a general negative attitude towards people of African descent. For example, Mexico's former president Vicente Fox has been quoted as saying that Mexican immigrants to the United States take jobs "that not even blacks want to do."[24] This cultural mentality of Mexicans towards people of darker skin color is the root cause of the racial problems between Mexicans and Afro-Americans in the United States.

Racism against Whites in Mexico[edit]

Historically non-Spanish whites were not treated well under the colonial caste system and the hacienda system. Mexicans of German, Lebanese, Jewish and French descent were not allowed political or economic power and many times had their land or assets seized. In recent times racism against non-Hispanic White Mexicans has died down significantly. German and Lebanese Mexicans are seen as model minorities in Mexico; however, there is still a relative amount of racism in rural areas against people of Jewish or Arab descent.

Racial discrimination against white Mexicans, particularly of Spanish background, is common in certain Amerindian majority areas such as the states of Quintana Roo, Chiapas and the Yucatan where Amerindians make up the majority of the upper class. Racist attitudes are particularly prevalent in many Mayan majority municipalities, with many Mayans believing that Hispanicized Mexicans are lazy, uneducated, unclean, violent and corrupt. White Mexicans may be ostracized from society in Mayan communities where they are seen by many as unwanted, invasive foreigners.

United States of America[edit]

Racism in the United States has been a major issue ever since the colonial era and the slave era. Legally sanctioned racism imposed a heavy burden on Native Americans, African Americans, Latino Americans, and Asian Americans. European Americans were privileged by law in matters of literacy, immigration, voting rights, citizenship, land acquisition, and criminal procedure over periods of time extending from the 17th century to the 1960s. Many European ethnic groups, particularly American Jews, Irish Americans, and Eastern European and Southern European immigrants, as well as immigrants from elsewhere, suffered xenophobic exclusion and other forms of racism in American society.

Major racially structured institutions included slavery, Indian Wars, Native American reservations, segregation, residential schools (for Native Americans), and internment camps (for Japanese-Americans). Formal racial discrimination was largely banned in the mid-20th century, and came to be perceived as socially unacceptable and/or morally repugnant as well, yet racial politics remain a major phenomenon. Historical racism continues to be reflected in socio-economic inequality. Racial stratification continues to occur in employment, housing, education, lending, and government.

As in most countries, many people in the U.S. continue to have some prejudices against other races. In the view of a network of scores of US civil rights and human rights organizations, "Discrimination permeates all aspects of life in the United States, and extends to all communities of color." Discrimination against African Americans, Latin Americans, and Muslims is widely acknowledged. Members of every major American ethnic and religious minority have perceived discrimination in their dealings with other minority racial and religious groups.


  1. ^ D'Souza, Dinesh (1996). The End of Racism:. p. 17. 
  2. ^ West, Cornel (2002). Prophesy Deliverance!: An Afro-American Revolutionary Christianity. p. 116. 
  3. ^ "Map shows world's 'most racist' countries". Washington Post. May 15, 2013. Retrieved 2013-04-20. 
  4. ^ "Employment Equity Act (1995, c. 44)". 
  5. ^ "Canada told not to use term 'visible minorities'". National Post. 
  6. ^ Alfred, Taiaiake (2011). "Colonial Stains on Our Existence". In M. Cannon; L. Sunseri. Racism, Colonialism, and Indigeneity. Ontario: Oxford Press. 
  7. ^ "Press kit: Issues – Racism against Indigenous peoples – World Conference Against Racism". United Nations. 
  8. ^ "Ex-Olympian Call Pound Racist". Canwest News Service. October 18, 2008. 
  9. ^ "Stolen Sister". Amnesty.ca. 2006. Retrieved November 18, 2014. 
  10. ^ "Amnesty Stolen Sisters". Amnesty.ca. 2006. 
  11. ^ Smith, Andrea (2005). Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Genocide. Cambridge. MA: South End Press. 
  12. ^ Smith, Andrea (2005). Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Genocide. Cambridge,MA: South End Press. 
  13. ^ "Freedom from Slavery". Government of Ontario, Ministry of Government Services. 
  14. ^ "Japanese Internment". Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. [dead link]
  15. ^ Moore, Oliver (2010-02-24). "This page is available to GlobePlus subscribers". Toronto: Theglobeandmail.com. Retrieved 2010-07-26. 
  16. ^ Lowe, Lezlie. "Halifax's hidden racism | Lowefiles | Halifax, Nova Scotia | THE COAST". Thecoast.ca. Retrieved 2010-07-26. 
  17. ^ "BreakingNews – Protest targets racism in Halifax". TheSpec.com. 2010-02-23. Retrieved 2010-07-26. 
  18. ^ Weekend Observer. Ottawa Citizen. November 9, 1985
  19. ^ "The World; Racism? Mexico's in Denial.", The New York Times, June 11, 1995
  20. ^ "Racism Rears Its Ugly Head in Mexico", San Francisco Chronicle, August 3, 2005
  21. ^ "Racism in Mexico?", The Final Call, June 23, 2005
  22. ^ [Víctimas del racismo en México. Racism in Mexico], retrieved 8 July 2013 
  23. ^ http://www.proceso.com.mx/?p=294476
  24. ^ "Mexican leader criticized for comment on blacks", CNN, May 15, 2005

See also[edit]

Racism by country