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Economist Frances Woolley raises important issues about the term "visible minority" in a recent Globe Op-ed. She questions its lack of precision and its usefulness as an indicator of labour market discrimination and, therefore, whether it is a legitimate policy objective to try to improve labour market outcomes for people described as visible minorities.

Discomfort with the term "visible minority" is shared by the United Nations. This discomfort is shared even closer to home, by many Canadian scholars and advocates who are also concerned with the visible minority label and its connotations. The difficulties we have in describing or considering race are grounded in its conceptual limitations. As a result, a number of other terms have emerged to describe the set of social and economic experiences that are captured by the concept of race or racialization. We know that race is not a scientific term; there is no biological basis for our ideas about racial differences. We also know that our concepts of race change over time. In the last century, Jewish and Irish were considered to be separate races in North America, just as Black and South Asian are considered to be now.

However, this changing nature of racial categorization does not eliminate its real social impacts. There are a number of studies that show the impact of race and racism on the labour market experience of Canadians.

Professor Woolley points us to two important ones. Another is by by University of Toronto economics professor Philip Oreopoulos, who sent out thousands of identical resumes with different names. This recent study found that employers across Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver significantly discriminate against applicants with common Indian and Chinese names relative to English names. It found that name-based discrimination remains largely unaffected by including other indicators of language or social skills, comparing occupations that require less of these skills, and by using European names, more likely second-generation applicants, than Chinese or Indian names. In our study The Colour Coded Labour market, using Census data, we found evidence of labour market discrimination across a wide range of labour market indicators.

Many who study the situation ask whether the relevant question is immigrant status rather than race. Using Census data and controlling for age and educational attainment, we found a wide gap between average employment income of university educated immigrants aged 25-44 by race. Immigrants who identified themselves as white had higher earnings than those who did not. For men, the earnings gap between these two types of immigrants started at 68.7 cents for every dollar a first generation white immigrant earned and shrunk to 93.7 cents by the third generation. This suggests that both immigration and race are relevant factors in labour market outcomes.

Prof. Woolley also questions what the people who are in the ten visible minority groups have in common. We agree that their labour market experience is varied. But what these groups do have in common, in varying degrees, is experiences of labour market discrimination based on their race. In our own work, using census data, we found that there are differences in labour market outcomes across almost all racialized groups. The 2006 census data showed employment earnings for all these groups were lower than for those who identify as white, except for the very small number of Canadians who identify as Japanese.

Our reading of the data and evidence leaves us with a different dilemma. We can put aside the problems of definition and imprecision for much more pressing policy concerns. What steps can we take to ensure that racial discrimination doesn't prevent all Canadians from contributing to their fullest potential? How do we recapture the lost productivity that results from this discrimination? How do we prevent or mitigate the negative health and social impacts that result from this labour market discrimination? The federal Employment Equity Act is a modest response to these problems and needs to be strengthened to achieve its objectives – to achieve fair distribution of opportunities and equal representation in the labour market.

Grace Edward Galabuzi is associate professor in the Department of Politics and Public Administration at Ryerson University. Sheila Block is director of economic analysis at the Wellesley Institute in Toronto.

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