Desmond Cole: ’Canada insists on being surprised by its own racism’

Cole, a leading Black activist and critic of systemic racial injustices, sits down with Sarmishta Subramanian to discuss his new book ’The Skin We’re In’
Desmond Cole (Photograph by Dimitri Aspinall)

Desmond Cole first emerged on the public stage with his dogged challenges to the practice of police carding in Toronto. He spoke out at community rallies and at Police Services board meetings. He wrote articles, including one for Toronto Life magazine in 2015, about his own experience: “I’ve been stopped by cops on the streets 50 times. I’m not a criminal,” read the arresting cover. Cole became a columnist for the Toronto Star—and resigned when the paper discouraged him from continuing his advocacy work. He is now a leading Black activist and critic of systemic racial injustices targeting Black communities across the country. He spoke with Maclean’s Editor-at-Large Sarmishta Subramanian about police violence, the singularities of racism in Canada and his new book, The Skin We’re In, published in January by Doubleday Canada.

Q: You were born in Alberta and grew up in a suburb of Toronto.

A: My parents immigrated from Sierra Leone. They worked all the time and sacrificed a lot. We had a home in Oshawa with a backyard. We lived close to this big creek and ravine, and we would spend the summer catching frogs and making tree swings and forts. It was difficult to be one of the only Black families. But I had this resistance to the idea that that would be a problem for me.

Q: Activism, in a sense, kind of found you, right?

A: I was a small-“l” liberal-minded kind of person. When I went off to university at Queen’s, I remember students organizing to get people to Toronto for an anti-poverty demonstration. And I remember thinking, “Why would you waste your time doing this?” Then we had a referendum on tuition fees and the majority of students didn’t even vote. I was on a student loan, and I was shocked to see how this notion of paying for your education didn’t mean anything to so many of the white students. And September 11 was my second day of university. And the naked racism directed at Muslim students—those things started breaking down my sunshine reality.

Q: Canadians have been gripped by cases of racial injustice in the United States—Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Trayvon Martin. In your book, you’ve outlined a year’s worth of Canadian cases in one arbitrary year: 2017. Almost none of them became lightning-rod cases for a wider public. Why?

A: Because Canada insists on being surprised by its own racism. And because this country, whatever people say about its diversity, is still overwhelmingly white. Black people being able to gather and fight back in any meaningful way looks very different here from, say, the United States, where there are major cities that are majority Black: Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Atlanta. That doesn’t exist in Canada. But I think that the other thing is that the mainstream media never wants to connect the dots. It’s hard to even find the words “white supremacy” in any mainstream publication. If a case involves a sensational amount of violence against a Black person, the media will cover it for one day, maybe a couple. But the media has a resistance to validating its own reporting that shows patterns of discrimination against Black people.

Q: You write in the book about a six-year-old who was handcuffed inside her school by police.

A: I call her Symone but that’s not her real name. Let’s remember that Symone had already been suspended four times by the age of six. How do you suspend a six-year-old girl from school? Who told educators that that kind of discipline for a little child is going to positively affect their behaviour?

Q: I was reminded of an American study that found that respondents tended to “adultify” five- to 14-year-old Black girls—viewed them as less innocent, less in need of protection than their white counterparts. They’re also punished more. You looked at suspension rates for Black students in Toronto, right?

A: In Ontario, the Mike Harris government’s Safe Schools Act broadened the definitions under which students could be suspended or expelled. And Black children became primary targets of the new rules. When Dalton McGuinty took over in 2003, there weren’t a lot of statistics and the Toronto District School Board, for one, said, Okay, we’re going to start collecting some statistics, Their preliminary statistics showed Black students were being disproportionately suspended as early as primary school—so little six- and seven-year-old Black kids. And those patterns continued as the students got older. For every white student suspended, three Black students were suspended. Given the relatively small population of Black students—13 per cent—that’s very telling about a pattern of discrimination.

And then if you actually listen to Black people’s stories and have them tell you how these things happen, it’s issues that don’t really require school discipline—a student looking at a teacher the wrong way, issues of a student standing up for themselves.

Q: In the book you say the goal is not to suspend fewer Black children. It’s to make it not possible for teachers and administrators to mete out such harsh punishments to children in general. So it’s a race-based problem you are responding to. But the answer has to be not race-based?

A: I wouldn’t specifically say that it’s a non-race-based solution. In Ontario, suspension rates did come down under McGuinty. The TDSB started suspending a lot fewer children. But, because they were keeping statistics, we could see that Black students were still being suspended at a rate of three to one.

That’s where I come to my conclusion—and it’s not mine alone. If you set up a system of punishment—in the workplace, in a school, the prison system itself—and Black people are in the mix, they will be disproportionately punished.

Q: So the answer has to be to take those penalties away, to take that discretionary power away.

A: Because the discretion is racist, and because the institution can’t help but see Black behaviour as being different and more threatening than everybody else’s. That is the legacy of slavery. That is why I believe that we Black people will never stop talking about slavery, because the mentality that white people had to adopt to impose slavery in Canada, for example, has never left us.

Desmond Cole addresses a group of activists and protesters outside of police headquarters on Aug. 24, 2017. (Steve Russell/Toronto Star/Getty Images)

Q: You’ve been vocal on practices like carding, and on reforming police Special Investigations Units. Is more sunlight, more public accountability, one answer?

A: I would start with accountability for racism. I can lose my life for stepping out into the street where the police can scrutinize me. What do they lose for discriminating against me? Nothing. That’s the beginning and the end of the trouble right there.

I don’t believe in policing as we currently experience, fund and construct it. Policing is state-sanctioned violence. So now people want to tinker with the legalized violence.

My father is retired, but he was a mental health nurse. When I see Black men with mental health issues [like Abdirahman Abdi, in Ottawa] being killed, I think about the fact that my father served people like that every day and he didn’t have a baton, taser or Glock. My mom’s still working in a nursing home. Nurses get assaulted every day. And there’s no nurse in this country that is allowed to use force against the patients that they’re meant to serve. My mom wouldn’t get out the door with her nurse’s licence if she ever laid a hand on somebody, no matter what they did to her.

Let’s stop lying to ourselves. You call the police because you don’t have the legal right to use force, but they do. That’s why [Bank of Montreal recently] called the police on an Indigenous man and his 12-year-old granddaughter who were trying to open an account.

Q: One theme that emerges from your book is the way in which quotidian, bureaucratic, sometimes quite archaic bylaws—party permits, open alcohol—escalate to serious criminal concerns where Black or Indigenous individuals are involved.

A: So last month a Black woman in Halifax named Santina Rao was shopping at Walmart with her two children, who are 15 months old and three. She’s in the electronics section and wants to pay. But she also has a grapefruit and two produce items, and the cashier says, “I can’t weigh these in on a scale here.” So she paid for the other items and got a receipt, and she’s taking her kids to this other cashier. And they walk by the toy section, and her daughter says, “Mommy, look at this.” While they’re standing there, they’re approached by five individuals, three of whom are from Walmart, one is a police officer and one is a security guard. And they accuse her of stealing—concealing items.

Q: The grapefruit.

A: Yeah. Now, she can’t be stealing because she hasn’t left. But that didn’t matter. Santina said, “I have my receipt for what I just bought. Here’s my stroller. Have a look.” They still didn’t care. They asked her for ID. When she provided them with ID, they said, “Does this address match with the address where you currently live?”

It’s the violence of bureaucracy. It’s the use of paperwork, of government processes, to turn the tables on a person who is just trying to live their life, to say, You can’t continue. We’ve found some hitch in your personhood here. We must inspect you further.

We all talk about the Underground Railroad, but slavery was still legal in the British Empire, even as people were escaping here from the United States. If you were a Black person just rolling down the street in Upper Canada, people would say, Who is that person? Do you think that’s Jim’s boy? I don’t know. We should find out, though. And today the police call it street checks. Santina ended up with a broken wrist, bruises all over her face, back and neck, and three criminal charges.

Q: In the cases you outline in the book, the charges almost always get thrown out.

A: The charges get dropped because there’s no substance to them. But Santina must now deal with those charges. People lose their kids over things like this. Her children were watching as these cops took her to the ground. I asked her, “When they took you out to the police car, what happened to your kids?” And she said, “I don’t know.” Imagine. And the entire establishment of Walmart Canada, that serves poor Black people all across the country, they’re like, We’re not going to say anything. Actually, Walmart has sanctioned her from coming onto their property. She’s banned from the store.

Q: Appalling. At the 2018 Future Cities Summit, you talked about the distribution of Black populations across Toronto as “the new segregation.”

A: My goal was simply to ask people who call themselves urbanists to use a word that I know they won’t use, because they need to describe segregation in some neutral or even evolving and positive connotation. Why is there a Chinatown? Why is there a Little Italy? Because we love these multicultural villages or because people [weren’t] allowed to live in whole chunks of the city?

Q: If you look at where Black communities are now settled, the downtown has hollowed out, right?

A: Yeah, there’s been an exodus. What has happened to Alexandra Park? What has happened to Regent Park? What is happening to Lawrence Heights? They call it revitalization. I call it sending Black people to the fringes. David Hulchanski, the urban geographer at the University of Toronto, talks about what he calls the three cities of Toronto, and “City No. 3,” the outer suburbs, is the poorest and has the least access to transit. People have the longest commutes, lowest incomes, the worst schooling, etc. I don’t have time for people who want to call that multiculturalism. That’s an insult.

Q: Of course, they are not physically sending Black people out of the downtown core. The law is not prescribing that these communities live elsewhere. These are other forces: market forces, social forces. But Hulchanski says the segregation is not irreversible. What could be done to stop it?

A: What we should have done 30 years ago is said that if you want to build in Toronto, this is how many affordable units you will build alongside whatever new thing you want to build. If you don’t want to do that, we don’t give you a building permit, period.

I’d say we should do that now, except that so much of the city has been swallowed up, we’ve lost a huge part of that opportunity.

What we could do—and you know, this is how you precipitate full-scale class warfare—is start intensifying the rich people’s neighbourhoods. Let’s revitalize some parts of Rosedale and Leaside and Forest Hill by building some proper condos up there that only poor people will have access to because they’re shut out of the rental market. Let’s build it and see what they say then about revitalization.