4. Race and Crime

4.3 The Practices of Race in Colonialism

Dr. Michael Ma

Scholars argue that colonialism is a system of governance that relies upon institutional forms of racism that develop over three stages (Fanon, 1968). First, the colonising power invents a distinction that is used to separate themselves from the population they seek to control. Second, the colonial power uses the idea that colonised peoples are different types of humans to justify its control over territorial space. Thirdly, the colonising power understands its own civilisation as superior to that of the people who are being colonised. This unequal power relationship between people is legitimated through legal, moral, religious, and later scientific forms of justification.

During the intensification of European colonial expansion in the 17th and 18th centuries, the process of categorising the Indigenous “other” as racially distinct from and inferior to the coloniser simultaneously produced a “superior” racial category that applied to Western European colonisers. That is, a species distinction grew out of the practice of colonisation that assumed the Indigenous “other” to be a product of an inferior race, nation, and ethnicity. Viewing Indigenous peoples as primitive and backwards permitted Europeans to present their hostile incursions as paternalistic efforts to “civilise” the land and its inhabitants.

The civilising mission was a moral and religious mission of purification (Valverde, 2008). Part of the civilising mission in Canada involved the establishment of the residential school system designed to “Kill the Indian in him, and save the man” (The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, 2015, p. 137). Through this state- and church-mandated residential school system, all “Indian” children were systematically rounded up with the support of the RCMP and placed in the care of institutions. Familial and tribal bonds were broken; children were taken away for many months or years and in many cases were unable to return to their homes. During their time in residential schools, children were forbidden to speak their native languages; European food, religion, customs and styles of clothing were imposed upon them; and many were starved and malnourished. Furthermore, the school system had a history of physical and sexual abuse that has been well documented (see 6 Biological Influences on Criminal Behaviour). The system of colonial civilisational structures remained in place well into the 20th century, with the last school in Punnichy, Saskatchewan, closing in 1996.

One way that racism becomes systemic is through law. The British system of criminal law was imposed through the Empire to establish that various cultural practices were deemed barbaric and uncivilised. For example, in India, the British established laws against social and religious practices (e.g., the criminalisation of dowry (Khanal & Sen, 2020)), and in Canada, Parliament passed legislation that banned Indigenous practices deemed uncivilised (e.g., potlach, sun dance, and systems of trade) and laws that segregated First Nations Peoples into reserves and prohibited their mobility with a “pass” system regulated by an Indian agent. Legal processes were also introduced that determined and restricted non-White Canadians’ status, rights, democratic representation, citizenship, and belonging (Roy, 2004).


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Introduction to Criminology Copyright © 2023 by Dr. Michael Ma is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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