If you want to feel depressed about the state of race relations, just read the news. White supremacists marched in Charlottesville, Va., and the President of the United States gave them a pass. A far-right group called La Meute marched in Quebec City. Racism accusations have rocked the town of Thunder Bay and a shocking number of Indigenous kids have been found in local rivers. A white supremacist allegedly shot up a mosque in Quebec, leaving six dead, and the local Muslim community couldn't find a place to build a cemetery where they could bury the dead.
Nobody is untouched. "Has racism against Asian Americans become normalized in America?" asked The New York Times's Facebook page.
Judging by the news, racism is still one of the defining features of our society. But how prevalent is discrimination, really? U.S. researcher Brian Boutwell and a team of academics set out to answer this question in the most straightforward way. They asked people.
They asked more than 14,000 Americans how often they had been discriminated against, and why. The answers were surprising. A majority of respondents – even blacks – reported experiencing little to no discrimination in their lifetimes.
Among black Americans, 31 per cent said they had experienced discrimination "sometimes" or "often" – the highest percentage of all groups, not surprisingly, but not as high as you might expect. That compares with 27 per cent of Hispanics, 27 per cent of American Indians, 23 per cent of whites and 18 per cent of Asians.
Another surprise: Few of the respondents cited race as the motivating factor. Most blamed a variety of other reasons, such as personal appearance, education, age or political views.
Prof. Boutwell, of Saint Louis University in St. Louis, cautions in his conclusion that we shouldn't be complacent. One study is far from conclusive. "Our results," he says, "provide at least somewhat of a counterweight to possibly exaggerated claims that discrimination is a prevalent feature of contemporary life in the United States."
Is Canada worse? I don't think so. Overtly racist behaviour isn't just illegal – it's become taboo. When an irate mother burst into an Ontario health clinic and demanded a "white doctor" to treat her son, the onlookers were outraged. "You are extremely rude and racist," another mother told her. Virtually every radio talk-show caller condemned the racist remark. Somebody dug up a sociology professor to declare that the incident was evidence that "everyday racism" is resurfacing. In fact, this story proves that everyday racism is not tolerated by ordinary people.
In Charlottesville, the more than 500 white supremacists on parade were vastly outnumbered by the counterdemonstrators. In Vancouver and Boston, right-wing demonstrations were swamped by counterprotests. The mayor of Quebec City found land for the Muslim cemetery.
Are we perfect? Far from it. Millions of people across North America still experience discrimination in the labour markets and daily life. Most black or Indigenous men can expect to be stopped by police because of their skin colour. There's still a lot of work to do. But by every measure available, we've made progress. "Racist behaviour is declining in America," announced The Economist last week, and bolstered its case with thickets of facts and figures.
Here's more. Opposition to intermarriage has declined dramatically. According to Pew Research, the number of people in the United States who think interracial marriage is bad for society had declined to just 9 per cent. Only 10 per cent would oppose intermarriage by a family member. Intermarriage rates are rising steadily – from just 3 per cent in 1967, the year the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that bans against intermarriage were illegal, to 17 per cent in 2015.
But the narrative that racism is a pervasive scourge just won't let go. Too many people have too much invested in it. The narrative is mercilessly flogged by the progressive left and faithfully repeated by every liberal public figure to establish her bona fides. As everyday racism declines, we have invented "structural" and "systemic" racism to replace it – all the more insidious, because it is invisible.
"America for decades now – with much genuine remorse – has been recoiling from the practice of racism and has gained a firm intolerance for what it once indulged," Shelby Steele wrote in The Wall Street Journal. But for many people, the idea of racial progress is fake news – or, even worse, heresy.