Review of Policing Black Lives: State Violence in Canada from Slavery to the Present by Robyn Maynard
Policing Black Lives: State Violence in Canada from Slavery to the Present
by Robyn Maynard
Policing Black Lives took me almost an entire month to read, which is virtually unheard of, and it’s not a very long book. It is, however, very dense, academic, and not at all happy reading. Nevertheless, it is an important book. I first heard about it, and from Robyn Maynard, on an episode of the Canadaland Commons podcast devoted to the gaps in Canada’s curriculum on the history of slavery and anti-Blackness. Since I grew up with the Canadian education system, this is definitely something that applied to me. Conveniently, Maynard has a whole book on the subject. This is that book. Well, actually, this is a review of that book, if you want to get really technical.
Perhaps the most obvious plus of Policing Black Lives is precisely the fact that it is so heavily focused on Canada. Much of the discussion of anti-Black racism and state violence against Black people centres on the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States. And it’s very frustrating to see fellow Canadians look down their noses at our neighbours to the south and promulgate this idea that Canada is somehow more tolerant and less racist—at the same time, it’s hard to engage with that line of thinking because, honestly, up until now I was only vaguely aware of the ways in which our intolerance and our anti-Black racism manifests. Although Maynard references events and research from the United States where appropriate, as this book’s subtitle promises, this is about state violence in Canada, no mistake about it—and that is so powerful and useful.
In addition to an introduction and conclusion, Maynard presents 8 chapters for consideration. The first two chapters chronicle the history of anti-Blackness in the country, from slavery during Canada’s time as a British and French possession to the state-sponsored segregation of the early days of the dominion. The next chapters focus on the inequities in the justice system, with particular case studies and examples for how Black women are targeted, stigmatized, and punished. This moves into an examination of misogynoir, the intersection of misogyny and anti-Blackness, with the scope broadened from the justice system towards issues of welfare, child protection, access to employment, and public safety. Next, Maynard considers how Canada’s immigration policies, both official and unofficial, have been racist and violent towards Black people. Finally, she addresses the systemic racism towards Black children and their parents in our school system.
Basically, a more tongue-in-cheek yet accurate title for this book might be, Everything You Wanted to Know About Anti-Black Racism in Canada But Were Too Lazy to Ask.
This book is also rigorously cited. I mean rigorously, like at least one or more citations per sentence in some paragraphs. This is one of the reasons it took me so long to get through the book. Maynard approaches these subjects from a highly academic perspective. That is not a bad thing, mind you, nor would I accuse this book of being dry or inaccessible. However, it does mean that I tend to slow down while I read, to make sure I’m following all of the lines of reasoning and understanding it completely. This is not the kind of non-fiction book you would like to take on the beach with you; it might be the kind of non-fiction book you could read on your commute for a few weeks, though.
By grounding her arguments and education in this academic territory, Maynard avoids producing a polemic and instead delivers a truly scathing critique of our society. Like, I would definitely say I was sympathetic to these notions going into the book. I don’t really see how anyone who claims to be swayed by rational, dispassionate appeals to logos could read this and not agree that there is rampant, systemic anti-Blackness. One might disagree on what we should do about it, but Maynard leaves the reader with little choice but to conclude that there are numerous and various problems within our society, from government to policing to the education system.
Maynard also demonstrates a dedication to intersectionality. She never fails to highlight the ways in which gender, age, sexuality, disability, etc., also influence and perhaps alter the extent to which Black people experience oppression and violence. Similarly, she frequently mentions the parallels between anti-Blackness and the colonial oppression of Indigenous peoples. In this way, Maynard effectively establishes the root of the problem, which is not necessarily some nefarious belief of inferiority of Black people, but the fact that the very power of the Canadian state is rooted in the oppression of Black and Indigenous bodies for the purposes of exploitation and production of capital on behalf of white people and settlers.
Policing Black Lives also took a while to read just because it’s very dark, in a very clinical way. Of course, it’s part of my white privilege that I get to be a tourist here, learning in an academic way what Black people have to experience and endure throughout their lives. But I mention it because I want to be upfront about what you will experience reading this book.
Pair this selection with the exquisite So You Want to Talk About Race from Ijeoma Oluo; or, if you want a parallel education in Indigenous issues, Indigenous Writes, by Chelsea Vowel.