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Blog Bernard Letendre

Social responsibility

A case study in systemic discrimination – with some useful lessons for our time

I wade today into the fraught topic of systemic racism and discrimination. I do so because I believe systemic racism exists and that it can be fought.

It is my contention in this article that when a minority faces systemic disadvantages, which are the flip side of the dominant group’s entrenched privileges, good will and warm feelings alone are not sufficient to disrupt the status quo. What is required is broad-based disruption in the form of concrete policy actions. It is furthermore my contention that signs of progress, or lack thereof, are to be assessed on the basis of hard economic data.

I recently came across an article by Pierre Fortin, Professor Emeritus of Economics at the University of Quebec in Montreal. Titled “The Quiet Revolution and the Economy” (my translation), the article was written for a series of conferences commemorating the 50th anniversary of Quebec’s Quiet Revolution back in 2010.

Most readers won’t be familiar with Prof. Fortin but he is one of the most acclaimed economists in Canada, winner of many awards and recognitions, author of many books and many more articles, and economic advisor to provincial and federal governments alike.

The article outlines a blueprint for socio-economic progress within our own country – one that successfully broke a 200-year-long cycle of systemic discrimination that previously held down the French-speaking population of Quebec. To our shame, other forms of discrimination have continued unabated but more on this later.

In light of recent events across North America, the following chart grabbed my attention as I was reading through the article:

It can all be traced back to France’s defeat at the Battle of Quebec in 1759, which resulted in Anglo-Protestant Great Britain seizing control of Franco-Catholic New France from Louis XV. Back then, great powers in Europe treated entire populations as things to be disposed of in accordance with the superior interests of their colonial ambitions. Not slavery nor the systematic confiscation of ancestral lands (and worse), but a form of subjugation nonetheless, with clearly measurable impacts.

“[D]uring the 1960s”, explains University of Chicago Professor of Psychology Katherine D. Kinzler, “English speakers [in Quebec] held the lion’s share of economic opportunities. Amidst all the turmoil in Montreal at the time, researchers stepped in to study what was going on in people’s ears and their minds when they heard English and French. They wanted to deeply probe what people really thought—perhaps revealing opinions and attitudes about linguistic groups that ran so deep, people did not even know they held them.” (Katherine D. Kinzler, How You Say It, Kindle Edition, p. 79)

What she writes next is a textbook example of the pernicious effects of systemic bias, of which examples abound all around us. It is so important that I quote it here at length:

“Unsurprisingly, the English-speaking participants preferred the English-speaking “guise” of the person they were listening to. They thought that English speakers sounded smarter and kinder, had a better character, and were more ambitious than the French speakers. They even though the English speakers sounded taller and better-looking.

Yet not all people preferred their in-group. Evidence suggested that French speakers had internalized the cultural ethos of the time, which relegated French to a lower status than English. Though the French speakers might not openly admit it, they too thought that the English speakers sounded smarter—and also taller and better-looking. The matched guise test surfaced this information. French speakers did, however, judge French speakers as kinder. […]

Lower-status groups of people—usually including speakers of nonstandard dialects and recent immigrants—are rated more favorably on the warmth side and less so on the competence side. They may be perceived as kind and loving but not particularly effective or intelligent.” (How You Say It, Kindle Edition, pp. 79-80)

Now fast forward forty years and the situation in Quebec looks radically different. Table 7 of Professor Fortin’s article shows the following progression:

In case you’re wondering, the demographic backdrop remained consistent throughout the period. According to Statistics Canada, “In Quebec, the share of people with French as their mother tongue was around 80% from 1901 to 2001”.

So what changed during that period?

In a nutshell, the government stepped in. Starting in the sixties and continuing throughout the following decades, successive provincial governments in Quebec – with some unsung support from the federal government – introduced a number of key measures designed to level the playing field for its French-speaking population: introduction of universal public healthcare, creation of a modern and essentially free education system, nationalization of hydro-electric utilities as a means to suport local industries, implementation of government-sponsored investment programs of all kinds and, of course, language laws designed to make it possible for French-speakers to work in their own language.

Prof. Fortin summarizes things this way:

“It is impossible to say exactly how much of our successes over the past half-century can be attributed precisely to the Quiet Revolution. One thing is certain, it gave a good boost to the education of young people, to the women’s revolution, to the financing of companies, to the establishment of a clean and cheap energy infrastructure, as well as to the access of Francophones to better jobs, leadership and corporate ownership.” (my translation)

How likely is it that after two hundred years of systemic discrimination clearly demonstrated by all available data, Quebec’s Francophones would have been able to overcome entrenched privilege without significant economic investments and decisive policy actions at all levels of government (over vociferous objections on many fronts)?

Are things perfect? Far from it, and I could riff off a whole litany of missteps, questionable choices and wasted opportunities going back decades. Discrimination against BIPOC exists in Quebec as it does elsewhere in the country, a constantly changing ill that grows a new head every time you cut one off. Still, on measures like education, GDP per capita, standard of living, poverty and economic inequality (as measured by the Gini coefficient), the progress accomplished by the French-speaking population over the past half-century has been properly astounding and offers a useful roadmap.

The lack of economic opportunity creates a spiral of social ills. A form of violence and oppression in and of itself, it dehumanizes to the core and only begets more of the same. And when such ills touch entire communities, they indeed rise to the level of “systemic”. Racial violence is abhorrent and the violence itself needs to be addressed. But so does the lack of opportunity which perpetuates this insidious status quo.

The issues that our societies are grappling with today are certainly different from the ones I described above but there are useful lessons to be taken from the solutions that broke that specific cycle – however imperfectly they may have been implemented. It will be uncomfortable and it will require considerable resources, but we are a rich country, we know it can be done and we can do it better this time around with the hindsight of experience. What we need now is the will to go the distance.