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The Law, not hashtags is what will stop racism in Edmonton

This article was published in The Edmonton Journal on September 15, 2016.

As one of the many black Canadians who call Edmonton home, the recent shows of unbridled racism toward fellow black Canadians in the city come with worrying signs.

I admit I’ve never been called the N-word to my hearing by anyone in the city but the Bashir Mohamed experience (just blocks away from the Edmonton Police Service headquarters in the downtown core), which was succeeded by Jesse Lipscombe’s “the n-ers are coming” episode, also in the downtown core (and in broad day light), call all Edmontonians to be on guard.

Hate speech has been directed at black Canadians and people of colour for centuries but the means to eradicating this social malaise have to be connected with a conscious intention to punish wrongdoers. The message must be unequivocally delivered that hate speech is both demeaning and dehumanizing, and unhelpful to the human need to coexist.

Right on the heels of Lipscombe’s experience, a young black woman who is known to me was racially abused by two unprovoked white Canadians in a truck in southeast Edmonton’s Meadows neighbourhood. She was returning home from an evening work shift.

One weakness in racists is their lack of emotional intelligence, which is necessary to appreciate the destructive impact of their actions on the recipient. In the same vein, they lack the mental maturity to feel awkward when called out for being racist. They, in fact, become aggressive and emboldened to spewing more hatred. #MakeItAwkward was already trending at the time the woman heading home from work was called the N-word.

The thing is hashtags, since inception, tend to promise more than they can deliver. A bunch of words strung together to only convey a message are hardly an effective tool in defeating this cankerworm that is bound to further alienate the black population in Edmonton. Beginning from the abolition of slavery to the criminalization of hate speech, laws have been most effective in protecting the weakest from the meanest. And Canada has laws that prohibit hate speech (section 319 of the Criminal Code, for instance).

Both Bashir Mohamed and Jesse Lipscombe’s experiences were recorded and have been widely shared. The Edmonton Police Service ought to, at the minimum, review the tapes and recommend the laying of charges by the crown should there be preponderance of evidence that grounds a criminal charge.

In Mohamed’s case, the police did make a statement that they would not lay charges in the verbal altercation because it did not meet the criminal threshold.

But a public communication by the EPS of ongoing investigation into the video which captured Lipscombe being racially abused by a middle-age white man would have weakened the hands of racists while also helping to demonstrate the police’s resolve to protecting the city’s non-white communities.

Mayor Don Iveson’s #MakeItAwkward campaign rightly advocates for a non-confrontational approach to racists who are often confrontational in their hatred. It will certainly help for those at the receiving end of hate speech to know that the law has got their back and that the police, and political decision-makers, will allow the law to take its course.

Concerted lawful attack — using the instrumentality of the law — against racism, rather than a 13 letter hashtag, is the tool needed to fight this menace. Most who suffer racial abuse in the city do not get to meet with the mayor.

They also do not agonize over their experiences expecting that the folks known to the racists will help make racism awkward during family conversations or social gatherings. Hardly do racists utter hate speech during family social gatherings or conversations.

The face of Edmonton has rapidly changed; it is now, in 2016, the sixth largest metropolitan area in Canada. It is time its inhabitants’ attitude toward people who do not look, behave or reason like them change as well.

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