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Race matters

Open for all? offers a “think piece“ rather than an intellectual analysis. Columnist John Pateman shares his personal observations on issues and his columns are designed to promote discussion and professional debate. He has arrived at his conclusions after 40 years working in public libraries of/in all types and locations.

When I was thinking of a suitable title for this month’s column, a number of ideas came to mind including “Decolonization is not a metaphor” and “Acknowledgement is not enough.” But I settled on “Race matters” because this complements my last column, “Class matters.” As I wrote this past May, social class is the most significant single determinant of public library use and non-use. However, class is not the only factor that influences the relationships that individuals and groups have with their public libraries. Race also has a significant impact on library usage.

Both race and class are outcomes of the economic base of society and its ideological superstructure. In biological terms, there is only one race—the human race. But in social and political terms, race is used by the ruling class, and its middle class (bourgeoisie) supporters, to divide and rule the working class (proletariat). As such race is inevitable within the capitalist system. As Malcolm X once observed, you cannot have one without the other, and racism cannot be vanquished until capitalism is overthrown.  

Socialist countries have also struggled to eliminate racism. Fidel Castro lamented that, despite more than 50 years of building a new society, racist attitudes and behaviour still lingered in Cuba. This is evidence of how an old superstructure can continue to exist long after the new economic base has been created.

Racism is fundamentally based on power. The (white) ruling class uses racism to subjugate the (black) working class. As such, a white person cannot experience racism; they may suffer discrimination or prejudice but they cannot be a victim of racism. White privilege and power protects them from racism. When this privilege and power is attacked the defensive response is known as “white fragility.”

These racial dynamics play out in every aspect of (western) capitalist society, including the public library. Despite a plethora of equal opportunity, diversity, inclusion and anti-racism statements and policies, the public library as a social institution remains a deeply racist institution. Indeed, the very longevity and durability of the public library, which has survived, fundamentally unchanged and intact for over 150 years, ensures its prime position as a white power organization. This may make many members of the library profession feel uncomfortable but for proof:

  • Attend any major library conference in the U.K., U.S.A. or Canada and count the people of color.
  • More tellingly, count the people of colour who are in positions of power in public libraries. You won’t need many hands, or indeed fingers, to achieve this.

Public libraries are white power organizations managed by and for the white middle class. This intersection between race and class is significant because the white working class is also under-represented among the senior echelons of public library management. As a result, the strategies (allocation of resources), structures (staff and services), systems (policies and procedures) and organizational culture (“the way we do things around here”) are shaped and determined by the values and attitudes of the white middle class.

And these white middle class professional librarians have not walked in the shoes or seen through the eyes of the black and white working class. They make assumptions about what the needs of their local communities may be without understanding black and white working class history and culture. As a result, public libraries are better able to meet the needs of the white middle class, who share the values and attitudes of those who provide library services.

There is no simple solution to this problem because it is caused by the economic base (capitalism) and the ideological superstructure (neoliberalism). For these reasons, I think that within a Marxist framework, the engine for change will not come from within public libraries where the focus is to retain white power and privilege. The pressure for change must come from outside the public library community, with the black and white proletariat working in solidarity to demand library services which meet their personal aspirations and community needs.             

John Pateman is the CEO of the Thunder Bay Public Library. He contributes to the library field through work on groups such as the CFLA-FCBA Indigenous Matters Committee.

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