Although the word "racism" leaps out from almost every page of the newspaper these days, I still have trouble accepting the idea that Canada is a racist society. So it was with great disappointment that I read this headline in the Globe and Mail several months ago: "Visible minorities lead in education but trail in income."
The article, summarizing a Statistics Canada report, said that 16 percent of the adult members of visible minority groups in Toronto had college degrees, versus only 13 percent of other adults. Yet on average, minority members earned $6,300 per year less in 1986.
Uh-oh, I thought, this seems like pretty concrete evidence of racial discrimination.
But the article went on to say that minority members are considerably younger than non-minorities. While I'm no statistician, it occurred to me that this fact alone might explain some of the income discrepancy. After all, people's earnings tend to increase as they progress through their careers. A group of 50-year-old whites is likely to have a higher average income than a group of 30-year-old whites, even if the younger group has slightly more education.
Economist Thomas Sowell, a professor at Stanford University and--although black himself--an outspoken critic of affirmative action, confirms: "Income differences between age brackets in the U.S. population are greater than income differences between blacks and whites."
When you look at the statistics in more detail, intriguing anomalies appear. Statistics Canada breaks down visible minorities into ten sub-groups. There's also an eleventh control group labelled "Other Canadians."
Two of the ten minority groups actually have higher incomes than Other Canadians. In 1985, the average Japanese earned $3,300 more than the average Other. The average West Asian and Arab earned $600 more than the average Other.
Now, if we are supposed to conclude that lower incomes are evidence of discrimination against minorities, what are we supposed to conclude about higher incomes--that Others are discriminating in favour of Japanese, West Asians and Arabs? Highly unlikely.
Besides, most Others couldn't discriminate in favour of Japanese even if they wanted to, simply because they can't distinguish them visually from some of the other minority sub-groups. The other sub-groups include Chinese, Koreans, Filipinos, South East Asians and Other Pacific Islanders.
The statistics reveal additional interesting facts about Japanese-Canadians in the labour force. For instance, they are three years older than the average Other, which could well account for some of the income discrepancy.
Furthermore, 76 percent of Japanese-Canadians were actually born in Canada, which means that they probably have Canadian education, Canadian work experience, and unaccented English or French as their mother tongue. This contrasts sharply with every other minority sub-group. The next closest group was the West Asians and Arabs, only 23 percent of whom were Canadian-born. Those classified Chinese or Black were only 17 percent Canadian-born.
These figures suggest that, if discrimination is operating at all, it is based not on race but on other work-related factors: indigenous education, relevant job training and the ability to communicate effectively.
Something that puzzled me was how certain ethnic groups came to be classified as visible minorities, while others weren't. I couldn't figure out, for example, how anyone would go about discriminating either in favour of or against a West Asian and Arab, because I myself certainly didn't know what one would look like or sound like.
It turns out that this category is itself made up of several different ethnic groups: Armenians, Iranians, Turks, Arabs and--believe it or not--Israelis. My guess is that even those who belong to this eclectic group would have trouble picking each other out in a crowd.
Another visible minority group that baffled me was the one called Latin American. What does a Latin American look like? According to Statistics Canada, this group includes people from Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, Mexico, Peru and "Other Latin/Central/South American" origins. There must be at least a few blue-eyed, light-skinned specimens in that company.
My own ethnic group, Jewish, was the tenth largest of the 60 distinct ethnic groups recognized by Statistics Canada in the 1986 census. Curiously, Jews aren't classified as a visible minority. True, they're not really a race, but West Asians and Latin Americans aren't races either. By appearance and by name, I would have thought that Jews are at least as distinguishable as Latin Americans.
The reason for their exclusion, I suspect, is that Jews are an embarrassment to folks like Ontario's Employment Equity Commission. They are living disproof of the theory that minorities need to be given preferential treatment in order to prosper.
In the 1986 census, Jewish men were the highest income group, earning $16,000 per year more than the average Other male. And because they are so numerous (for example, there were 245,000 Jews versus only 6,600 Other Pacific Islanders), their high incomes could well have a swamping effect if averaged in with other minority groups. Then we'd be reading headlines saying, "Visible minorities lead in both education and income."
Perhaps the Employment Equity Commission should devote further study to what the Japanese, West Asians, Arabs and Jews have done right before they entrench themselves permanently in jobs enforcing racial hiring quotas.