Equity, diversity, and human rights in the Trump age

Submitted on behalf of UWOFA's Equity Committee

What does a Donald Trump presidency mean for those of us in the academy whose work involves issues of equity, diversity, and human rights?

Under Trump, conservatives feel they have much to celebrate, poised to roll back years of so-called liberal progress, including the perceived silencing of right-leaning views by those who insist on “political correctness”. These contested arguments, of course, are not new. Rather, they are simply a part of the ongoing tensions around justice for marginalized groups that characterize any healthy democracy.

Some of us can recall similar conversations under Mike Harris’s populist Common Sense Revolution agenda in Ontario in the 1990s. In that case, dominant groups named themselves the victims of political correctness, even as they wrote policies and passed laws that adversely affected the lives of poor and racialized Ontarians. The principles and practices of equity, diversity and human rights are held together by the universal belief that every human being is entitled to basic dignity and equitable treatment. This, of course, is both aspirational and contextual. For all the equality gains we’ve made in recent years, we know that they are fragile and subject to the political proclivities of whatever group finds itself in power. Witness Trump’s call for a wall with Mexico and heightened screening of Muslim immigrants.

While most universities seek to reflect the spirit of equity, diversity and human rights through policies, guidelines, and codes of conduct, none fully achieves these well-intended goals. There is a chasm between what’s written and what’s actually done and even the successes are usually small and incremental.

In fact, most social justice gains are not policies that dramatically overturn or replace negative institutional practices, but instead layer over them to effect change.

For example, predominantly white universities with few people of colour and women in positions of power still insist on ‘celebrating diversity’; discussions about reverse racism and sexism are accepted as rational; student groups can innocently claim that indeed “all lives matter”; and more recently, urgent calls to extend rights and dignity to transgender communities are subject to debates in the interest of protecting ‘academic freedom.’ We can all agree that academic freedom is important but still challenge the belief that it somehow stands apart from issues of power and ethical responsibilities.

This view was crystallized by Dr. Mary Bryson, a professor of education at the University of British Columbia who participated in a debate held at the University of Toronto in November that sought to present contested views about identity and gender pronouns.

In this debate, Dr. Bryson reminded us that those on the margins are hailed in moments of public disagreements about who should have rights to debate the question of our humanity.

These types of debates raise questions about who deserves citizenship rights on the basis of race, class, gender, sexuality, disability, religion and so forth. And they ask us to participate in our own denigration to prove our civility.

These offensive debates further serve to remind us that rights, contingent as they are, must always be fought for; that we must insist on them in sustained and critical approaches to equity and diversity in the academy.

In light of Trump’s victory, there is talk about whether something similar could happen here, a fear stoked by the rhetoric of Kellie Leitch, a contender for the leadership of the Conservative Party. These anxieties are only possible if we believe that Canada and our universities don’t have a history of racial and other forms of injustice. Ms. Leitch believes that Canadian voters may be ready to embrace similar messages that propelled Trump to power. She may be right. Her proposition to test immigrants for their commitment to “Canadian values” is rooted in notions about who is really a Canadian. Again, this question is integral to the idea of Canada as a white nation. Leitch seeks to normalize Islamophobia and xenophobia through the seductive appeal, ironically, of protecting liberal democratic values.

What, then, is the role of scholars whose work takes up social justice? This moment, like many before and many others to come, requires an even greater commitment to the work that we do as scholars, teachers, and members of academic communities to insist on institutional accountability.

It calls for us to keep pace with, and to be prepared to challenge, language, ideas, and practices that seek to normalize hate in the guise of civil discussion and debate. Even as we recognize that informed and respectful discussion and debate are the cornerstones of what we, as academics, do.