© 1999  Karen Selick
Looking through Racism-Coloured Glasses
An edited version of this article first appeared in the September, 1999 issue of Canadian Lawyer.  If you wish to reproduce this article, click here for copyright info.


Looking through Racism-Coloured Glasses

The Canadian Bar Association has just given me another reason to be glad Iím not a member.  Its report "Racial Equality in the Canadian Legal Profession" is slated for discussion and adoption at the CBAís annual meeting in August.

Iíve been mulling over the report, trying to make some sense of it, since March.  Unfortunately, the only conclusion Iíve been able to draw with certainty is that anyone who says anything negative about this report will end up being accused of racism.

Its authors seem to see the world through racism-coloured glasses.  Instead of demonstrating that racism is rampant in the legal community, the committee starts out with this assumption, then interprets every anecdote and every statistic in a manner consistent with its thesis.  If no overt discrimination can be found to explain some incident, then "systemic discrimination" is always available to take the blame. 

The report quotes some aboriginal and black students telling stories of rudeness and rejection at articling interviews.  Good heavens, what is new, or racist, about that?   I remember one of my articling interviews, 24 years ago, in which the lawyer spent 20 minutes taking outside phone calls, and the remaining ten minutes telling me about his favourite charity.  If I had been a member of a visible minority group, I could have interpreted his discourtesy and disinterest in me as racism.  Instead, I just had to attribute it to the fact that he was a big jerk.  This person is now a judge, incidentally.  These things happen. 

I was particularly struck by the fact that so many of the people complaining about racism in the legal community seem ambivalent about whether or not they wanted to join the community in the first place.  They criticize it for being adversarial, for demanding that they think in a particular way. 

This evokes another memory, of the kindly corporate lawyer who telephoned me personally to explain why I didnít get the articling job with him. 

"You seem almost indifferent towards this job," he said.  "If Iím going to hire someone, itís going to be someone whoís enthusiastic." 

Now that Iíve sat on the employerís side of the table, I know exactly what he meant.  Given a choice between an applicant who is gung-ho about doing the work Iím offering and one who is ambivalent, Iím going to choose gung-ho.  Maybe what stands in the way of the complaining students is not othersí attitudes towards them, but their own attitudes towards the practice of law. 

The report is loaded with contradictions.  For instance, it recommends that law schools adopt outreach programs for minority students and set aside a number of places for them.  Yet only a page or two earlier, it complained that white law students hold "the racist assumption" that minority students are there at law school "because of a special program." 

Similarly, it complains about the paucity of minority faculty members in law schools and the absence of minority perspectives in the curriculum.  However, on the next page, those few minority members who have made it onto faculty complain that they "may be called on to serve on admissions committees, equity committees and curriculum committees to provide insight from a racialized community perspective" when theyíd rather be doing something else. 

It seems that no matter how the legal community has striven to address minority concerns, itís never good enough.  Thereís always still one more thing to complain about. 

Might there be a lesson in this observation?  Perhaps complaining and expecting other people to make things right for you--expecting others to change because youíre not happy--are not the way to achieve success. 

The report contains an interesting reference on page 3 to "Bora Laskin, a Jew [who] could not get an articling position in the 1930s in Toronto. (He went on to teach law and then to become the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada.)"  Well, how about that?  Bora Laskin did all this without any CBA reports on ethnic equality, without any set-asides for Jewish law professors or outreach programs for Supreme Court judges.  And hundreds--likely thousands--of other Jews have also made successful careers in a profession once hostile towards us. 

Fortunately, not all minority lawyers or students agree with the views or recommendations of this report.   By coincidence, at about the time I got the CBA report, an e-mail arrived from Tapas Pain, an articling student of East Indian origin working for a well-known Ottawa firm.   He describes affirmative action policies as paternalistic and offensive.  He fears, and I agree, that they can only lead to quotas.   But when he spoke and wrote against such policies at the University of Ottawa, he was chastised by a professor and "became the most hated man in U of O law school."

Nevertheless, Mr. Pain is not alone.  The non-profit organization Issues & Views publishes works by black scholars including Thomas Sowell and Walter Williams, who reject race-based privileges.  To wash away the bad taste left by the CBA report, read the work of these staunch individualists at www.concentric.net/~Issues/.

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June 20, 2000