Are three-fifths of Quebeckers racist? That's what a Leger Marketing Internet poll conducted over the holidays for the Journal de Montreal says, and the result has Quebec in a frenzy, with Premier Jean Charest hastening to defend his province and others wringing their hands over the promotion of negative stereotypes about sneering pur-laine xenophobes. It can only be hoped that Canadians outside Quebec -- who aren't always sympathetic to the province's fears for the survival of its ethnocultural patrimony -- will read past the flashy headlines and get the facts.
Only 1% of Quebeckers described themselves to Leger as "strongly racist"; another 15% described themselves as "moderately" so, and 43% confessed to being "slightly" racist. Yes, the numbers add up to 59% -- but there's no evidence that a poll taken in any other province, or indeed any other part of the Western world, would yield different results, and no sign that a real problem is being described.
The reason for this is that the word "racist," for all its negative associations, has become a vague term encompassing an enormous range of human thought, expression and activity that, until very recently, wasn't even considered objectionable. This includes not only off-colour jokes about "Newfies" and Polacks, but also the communication of harmless stereotypes grounded in truth--like the idea that blacks are more likely to get to the NBA than whites. Moreover, the popularization of terms such as "institutional racism" and "subconscious racism" -- which cast racial bias as an ineradicable phantasm pervading our entire society -- have convinced even the most tolerant among us that they are racist without knowing it. Given this climate, our only surprise is that anyone in the Leger poll declared themselves free of racism.
That is not to say that Quebec does not have genuine and even distinctive problems with racial tension. There is simply not much use in utterances like Premier Charest's categorical statement that "Quebeckers are not racist"; some of them surely do exhibit very real and disturbing animus toward members of other races, and obviously quite a few are prepared to admit to it. But in its sensationalistic treatment of the poll findings, the Journal practically obliges us to trot out the old cliche about the drunk who used a lamppost for support instead of illumination. The editors of the Journal were obviously seeking raw material for what is usually described in English as a "soul-searching examination" into the state of interracial harmony in Quebec, and they got what they wanted.
Now that the story has gotten the desired media attention, we will be inundated with ideas for how to cure Quebeckers of their newly discovered prejudice. These are best ignored: We do not think that "slightly racist" Quebeckers necessarily need to feel any shame, so long as they recognize unjustifiable racial biases as something to be resisted and suppressed. In a democratic society we have to judge one another on words and actions; we cannot peer into one another's souls.