Racism in North America

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This article describes the state of race relations and racism in North America. The factors of racism and its severity may vary from country to country due to historic, cultural, religious, economic or demographic reasons.


In a 2013 survey of 80 countries by the World Values Survey, Canada was ranked among the most racially tolerant societies in the world.[1] In 2015, the Social Progress Index ranked Canada #2 for overall tolerance and inclusion. [2][3]

In general, Canadians consider themselves to be mostly free of racial prejudice, perceiving the country as a more inclusive society, a notion that has come under criticism.[4][5] For instance, the Aboriginal population in Canada has been treated badly and sustained major hardships.[2][6] These perceptions of inclusion and "colour-blindness" have been challenged in recent years, with scholars such as Constance Backhouse stating that white supremacy is still prevalent in the country's legal system, with blatant racism created and enforced through the law.[7] According to one commentator, Canadian "racism contributes to a self-perpetuating cycle of criminalization and imprisonment".[8] In addition, throughout Canada's history there have been laws and regulations that have negatively affected a wide variety of races, religions, and groups of persons.

Canadian law uses the term "visible minority" to refer to people of colour (but not aboriginal Canadians), introduced by the Employment Equity Act of 1995.[9] However, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination stated this term may be considered objectionable by certain minorities and recommended an evaluation of this term. In response, the Canadian government made efforts to evaluate how this term is used in Canadian society through commissioning of scholars and open workshops.[10]

In 2020, Canadian university students attracted media attention by sharing on Instagram their experiences of racism on campuses.[11]

First Nations[edit]

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".[12] 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.[13] In August 2008, McGill University's Chancellor and International Olympic Committee representative Richard Pound told La Presse: "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".[clarification needed][14] The Canadian Indian Act helped inspire South Africa's apartheid policies.[15]

In 2006, Amnesty International researched racism specific to Indigenous women in Canada.[16] They report on the lack of basic human rights, discrimination, and violence against Indigenous women. 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.[17] From 1928 to the mid 1990s, Indigenous girls in the residential school system were subject to forced sterilization once they reached puberty.[citation needed] The number of sterilized girls is not known because the records were destroyed.[18] The numbers of Indigenous women and children gone missing or murdered within the next 10 years could reach 3,000.[19] The issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women has been a social issue that has received a great deal of attention by the media, the Canadian government, and The United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women. The estimate of missing and murdered women have ranged from 500 to 3000, depending on the time period being studied and the method of calculating this statistic. The reason for the increased attention on this issue is the representation of murdered indigenous women in crime statistics are not proportionate to the general population.[20]

In 2008, Prime Minister Stephen Harper publicized an apology for the Indian Act.[21]

Indigenous people still have to deal with systematic racism within Canada and the challenges that the communities face are often ignored.[19] There are still very much negative stereotypes associated with Indigenous communities such as being freeloaders, drug addicts or dumb.[22] Aboriginal people are more likely to feel depression due to several factors such as: poverty, loss of cultural identity, inadequate health care and more.

Slavery of Aboriginals and Black Canadians[edit]

There are records of slavery in some areas that later became Canada, dating from the 17th century. The majority of Canadian slaves were Aboriginal,[23] and United Empire Loyalists brought slaves with them after leaving the United States. Marie-Joseph Angélique was one of New France's best-known slaves. While pregnant, she set her mistress' house on fire for revenge or to divert the attention away from her escape. She ran away with the father of her child, who was also a black slave and belonged to another owner. The fire that she started ended up burning part of Montreal and a large portion of the Hôtel-Dieu. Later on, she was caught and sentenced to death. 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.[24] Slavery was abolished in Upper Canada in 1793 by the Act Against Slavery and fully abolished in all provinces as a result of the Slavery Abolition Act which abolished slavery throughout the British Empire.

Black Canadians[edit]

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. Viola Desmond, a Canadian black woman, was kicked out of the whites-only area of the Roseland Theatre in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia, in 1946. This incident challenged racial segregation in Canada and started a human rights debate in Canada. Near Chatham, in Merlin, the last segregated Black school in Ontario was finally closed in 1965 following lobbying by concerned African-Canadians to have it closed. Elsewhere, segregated schools were phased out around the same time, with the last segregated school in Canada, which was in Nova Scotia, closing in 1983.

Black Canadians have a long history of discrimination and racism. Canada has had segregation, and a Canadian Ku Klux Klan.[25][26] Racial profiling happens in cities such as Toronto and Montreal.[27][28] Black people made up 3% of the Canadian population in 2016, and 9% of the population of Toronto (which has the largest communities of Caribbean and African immigrants).[29] They lived disproportionately in poverty, were three times as likely to be carded in Toronto than Whites, and incarceration rates for Blacks were climbing faster than for any other demographic. A Black Lives Matter protest was staged at Toronto Police Headquarters in March 2016.[30] The Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants wanted to propel discussion by collecting everyday experiences of Black Torontonians for an ad campaign targeting racism.[31]


Indians arriving in Canada were not allowed to enter Canada unlike Europeans leading to the death of several immigrants in the Komagata Maru incident.


Jewish students were prohibited from studying at Canadian universities.[32] Canada had restrictive policies towards Jewish immigration. in 1939, Jewish refugees escaping from WWII Europe aboard the MS St Louis were not allowed to enter Canada due to racist immigration policies.[33] The Canadian Government recognized this systemic racism, making a formal apology in 2018.[34] While government policies have changed, racism against Jews remains problematic. Hate crimes against Jews, also called violent antisemitism, is the highest per capita recorded form of racism in Canada.[35] This, despite Jews being a tiny minority of the population, only 1.1% of Canada's population in 2018.[36]

Chinese Canadians[edit]

Starting in 1858, Chinese "coolies" were brought to Canada to work in British Columbia in the mines and on the Canadian Pacific Railway.[37] After anti-Chinese riots broke out in 1886, a "Chinese head tax" was implemented to curtail immigration from China. In 1907, the Anti-Oriental Riots in Vancouver targeted Chinese- and Japanese-owned businesses, and the Asiatic Exclusion League was formed to drive the Chinese and Japanese out of the province. League members attacked East Asians, resulting in numerous riots.[37] In 1923 the federal government passed the Chinese Immigration Act, commonly known as the Exclusion Act, prohibiting most Chinese immigration.[38] The act was repealed in 1947,[39] but discrimination limiting non-European immigrants continued until 1967 when a points-based system was introduced to assess immigrants regardless of origin. On June 22, 2006, Prime Minister Stephen Harper offered a full apology to Chinese Canadians for the Head Tax and expressed his regret for the Exclusion Act.[40]

Japanese Canadians[edit]

A British–Japanese treaty guaranteed Japanese citizens freedom of travel, so the Exclusion Act did not apply to Japanese Canadians.[clarification needed] They were nevertheless subject to anti-Asian racism in Canada, though to a lesser degree than the Chinese before World War II, as an informal agreement between the Japanese and Canadian governments limited Japanese immigration in the wake of the Anti-Oriental Riots of 1907.[39] In 1942, during World War II, many Canadians of Japanese heritage—even those born in Canada were forcibly moved to internment camps under the authority of the War Measures Act.[41] At first, many men were separated from their families and sent to road camps in Ontario and on the British ColumbiaAlberta border. Small towns in the BC interior such as Greenwood, Sandon, New Denver and Slocan became internment camps for women, children and the aged. To stay together,[42] Japanese-Canadian families chose to work in farms in Alberta and Manitoba. Those who resisted and challenged the orders of the Canadian government were rounded up by the RCMP and incarcerated in a barbed-wire prisoner-of-war camp in Angler, Ontario. With government promises to return the land and properties seized during that time period, Japanese Canadians left their homes. This turned out to be untrue, as the seized possessions were resold and never returned to the Japanese Canadians. Unlike prisoners of war, who were protected by the Geneva Convention, Japanese Canadians were forced to pay for their own internment. The Canadian government officially apologized and made restitution for the treatment of Japanese Canadians in 1988.[43]


Racism in Mexico has a long history.[44] Historically, Mexicans with lighter 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. However, there are notable exceptions as most of the poor in the rural north of Mexico are White, whilst in Southern Mexico – particularly in the states of Yucatán and Chiapas – Amerindians and Mestizos make up a large part of the upper class.[45]

When a Mexican of a darker-skinned tone marries one of a lighter skinned-tone, it is common for them say that they are "improving the race" (mejorando la Raza)." This can be interpreted as an attack on their own ethnicity.[46]

Racism against Indigenous Mexicans[edit]

Since colonialism, there has been a stigma attached to Indigenous culture and society. It was officially[by whom?] taught in Mexico until the mid-1940s that Indigenous culture and ways of life were inherently incorrect.[citation needed] As a result, 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 Hispanicized way of life and as such was not allowed social advancement in Mexican society. Due to 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.[citation needed]

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.[citation needed] To escape this discrimination many indigenous Mexicans historically embraced Hispanic identity.[citation needed] There is a common stereotype in Mexico that as one becomes wealthier or better of in the 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.[citation needed]

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.[citation needed]

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 often go unpunished.[citation needed]


In Southern Mexican towns adjacent to Belize, there is a general negative attitude towards people of African descent. Mexican phrases that attack black people (negros) – such as "getting black" (meaning getting angry), a "supper of blacks" or cena de negros (meaning a group of people getting together to cause trouble),[47][48] el negrito en el arroz ("the little black boy in the rice" meaning an unpleasant dark skin tone), and trabajar como negro ("work like a black man" which refers to work as a slave) – abound.[48]

Trinidad and Tobago[edit]

The island nation of Trinidad and Tobago is a melting pot of cultures and ethnic groups that mix fairly well in daily life, 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 is 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.

United States[edit]

Racism in the United States has been a major issue ever since the era of colonialism and slavery. Legally sanctioned racism imposed a heavy burden on Native Americans, African Americans, Latino Americans, Americans from lesser developed parts of Europe, 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 which extended from the 17th century to the 1960s. However, numerous European ethnic groups, including Jews, Irish, Southern European and Eastern European Americans, 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 and Latin Americans 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.

Legal scholar Charles Lawrence, speaking about the American political elite said their "cultural belief system has influenced all of us; we are all racists".[49] 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."[50]

Since Puerto Rico is a territory rather than state, the island is only entitled to certain "fundamental" constitutional protections, which is a source to their differential treatment.[51] Holding the status as an incorporated territory, they are limited to certain rights, unable to vote and limited from certain federal entitlements and welfare programs under the 14th Amendment.[51] Furthermore they hold zero representation under all forms of government, which proposes the application of heightened judicial view under the equal protection doctrine.[51] The Supreme Court holds that Congress may treat Puerto Rico unequally as long as on a rational basis for actions.[51] Federal courts have relied on this upholding and Puerto Rico's unincorporated territorial status and the resulting systematic inequality to deny plaintiff's equal protection lawsuits.[51]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Map shows world's 'most racist' countries". Washington Post. May 15, 2013. Archived from the original on April 30, 2017. Retrieved April 30, 2017.CS1 maint: BOT: original-url status unknown (link)
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  3. ^ "Canada - The Social Progress Imperative". 16 April 2013. Archived from the original on 2013-04-16. Retrieved 14 October 2017.
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  5. ^ "No charges against Peel police in death of Jermaine Carby | The Star". thestar.com.
  6. ^ Terry Glavin, "Canadians have no reason to be smug about race" (November 2014), The Ottawa Citizen
  7. ^ Backhouse, Constance (1999). Colour-coded: A Legal History of Racism in Canada, 1900–1950. Toronto: The Osgoode Society for Canadian Legal History.
  8. ^ "The Skin I'm In: I've been interrogated by police more than 50 times—all because I'm black". April 21, 2015.
  9. ^ "Employment Equity Act (1995, c. 44)". Archived from the original on February 12, 2007.
  10. ^ "Report of the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination" (PDF). United Nations. United Nations: Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. Retrieved 4 March 2017.
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  12. ^ Alfred, Taiaiake (2011). "Colonial Stains on Our Existence". In M. Cannon; L. Sunseri (eds.). Racism, Colonialism, and Indigeneity. Ontario: Oxford Press.
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  14. ^ "Ex-Olympian Call Pound Racist". Canwest News Service. October 18, 2008.
  15. ^ Gloria Galloway, "Chieft Reflect on Apartheid", The Globe and Mail, 11 December 2013
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  22. ^ "Alberta Portrait Project Challenges Aboriginal Stereotypes". The Huffington Post. Retrieved 2016-12-06.
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  32. ^ "McGill's 1926 Jewish ban | The McGill Daily". Retrieved 2019-12-05.
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  36. ^ https://www.environicsinstitute.org/docs/default-source/project-documents/2018-survey-of-jews-in-canada/2018-survey-of-jews-in-canada---final-report.pdf?sfvrsn=2994ef6_2
  37. ^ a b Wilford 2011, p. 28.
  38. ^ Wilford 2011, p. 29.
  39. ^ a b Melnyk & Seiler 2003, p. 279.
  40. ^ Canada, Employment and Social Development. "Prime Minister Harper Offers Full Apology for the Chinese Head Tax - Canada.ca". www.canada.ca. Retrieved 2017-07-29.
  41. ^ "Japanese Canadians". The Canadian Encyclopedia. Retrieved 2016-12-06.
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  44. ^ "The World; Racism? Mexico's in Denial.", The New York Times, June 11, 1995,
  45. ^ "Racism Rears Its Ugly Head in Mexico", San Francisco Chronicle, August 3, 2005
  46. ^ "Racism in Mexico?", The Final Call, June 23, 2005,
  47. ^ Los Angeles Times: "Roots of Latino/black anger" by Tanya K. Hernandez January 7, 2007
  48. ^ a b Consejo Para Prevenir y Eliminar La Discriminación De La Ciudad De Mexico: "Personas Afrodescendientes" Archived 2015-09-25 at the Wayback Machine retrieved September 24, 2015 (in Spanish) |

    "'"En la vida diaria, el racismo se expresa sobre todo en chistes, comentarios y frases que ridiculizan, minusvaloran o desprecian a las personas por su tono de piel, su historia, su cultura, sus tradiciones o su condición social. Frases como "El negrito en el arroz", que califica como desagradable el tono de piel oscura; "Trabajar como negro", que refleja la condición de esclavo y sobreexplotación a la que estuvieron sometidos los pueblos africanos; "Cena de negros", que indica que las personas de este tono de piel se comportan de manera violenta o poco amable, son algunos ejemplos de esas prácticas, que muchas veces se reproducen de manera irreflexiva"

  49. ^ D'Souza, Dinesh (1996). The End of Racism. p. 17.
  50. ^ West, Cornel (2002). Prophesy Deliverance!: An Afro-American Revolutionary Christianity. p. 116.
  51. ^ a b c d e Derieux, Adriel I. Cepeda (2010). "A Most Insular Minority: Reconsidering Judicial Deference to Unequal Treatment in Light of Puerto Rico's Political Process Failure". Columbia Law Review. 110 (3): 797–839. JSTOR 27806633.

Works cited[edit]