Feb. 27, 2023

Qualified immunity: The engine that powers structural racism

Education researcher Sam Madesi says ending police violence and anti-Black racism begins with a conversation
Sam Madesi is working to change the governmental and institutional systems that enable anti-Black racism and police brutality in Canada
Sam Madesi is working to change the governmental and institutional systems that enable anti-Black racism and police brutality in Canada Courtesy of Sam Madesi

Werklund School of Education doctoral student Sam Madesi is researching anti-Black racism invigorated by police brutality with the goal of deconstructing the power structures and social control practices that allow law enforcement agencies to surveil, repress, brutalize and kill members of the Black community.

Madesi feels strongly that racial problems in Canada are due to limited spaces for dialogic conversations — communication that focuses on respectful and open dialogue between conscious or unconscious oppressors and the oppressed. 

While it may seem startling that such a critical undertaking must begin with discussion, Madesi, who specializes in peace education, community development and adult learning, maintains that we need to get better, not bitter, and transform negatives into opportunities.

“Dialogue humanizes all parties and demonstrates respect,” he explains. “We cannot keep ‘fighting racism’ without posing, reflecting and creating an opportunity to ‘talk’ about racism in dialogue with all parties.

“Fighting produces winners and losers, but the loser never gives up, and thus the fight never ends.”

A collective effort

Challenging racism is not the responsibility of the Black community alone. Madesi believes every Canadian has a role to play and dialogic conversations can help build allies.

Among these allies, adult educators are particularly well suited to address social issues like racism as they have the knowledge and skills to create a climate of mutual trust, which is required for effective discourse.

“Racism as a social construct is a grandchild of miseducation and misinformation about other races and, therefore, an educational problem. Much miseducation and misinformation occur informally and in nonformal learning settings, especially during socialization. All these are critical adult education concerns.”

Abolishing qualified immunity

Madesi is adamant that conversations and efforts to end police brutality must address the legal immunity that shields police officers who violate the rights of citizens.

In Canada, police services acts and professional codes protect members of law enforcement from prosecution if acting in “good faith” when carrying out their duties. This principle is intended to ensure that those who reasonably exercise their authority in service of the public can do so without fear of legal action.

Critics of this privilege, known in the United States as qualified immunity, argue that the vague wording used to explain good faith gives public officials a blank cheque when it comes to fulfilling their commission, which results in police brutality, predominantly against Black and Indigenous people, going unpunished. Victims are denied justice, public trust is eroded and the rule of law is undermined when officers of the law are not held accountable.

“Ending qualified immunity means withdrawing police's right to kill Black and Indigenous people with impunity — the end of the licence to kill and walk away free.” 

Including Black pedagogy in schools

In addition to scrapping qualified immunity, Madesi aligns with other advocates who contend that a radical Black pedagogy is essential for eliminating police brutality.

Black pedagogy serves to counter portrayals of Black communities and individuals as inferior and articulates how the construction of these depictions results in desensitization to the cruelty and violence experienced by this population.

It is critical that Black children are taught empowering Black history to bolster their confidence about who they are, where they are coming from, and where they are going.

This curriculum must also outline the ways in which popular culture has perpetuated and magnified anti-Black racism. For this reason, Madesi encourages the Black community to own their narrative.    

“Nobody ever tells your story as well as yourself. If you let other people tell your story all the time, you risk being misrepresented, and the story is told in the interest of the storyteller.

“Black pedagogy is a space where Black people tell their own stories in their own right to students and others willing to learn.”

When asked why this work is so important to him, Madesi explains that he leads two organizations that support people of African descent now living in Canada, and not a day passes without a call or email from his constituents complaining about police harassment and racist treatment.

“If I am not part of those trying to change our problems, then I am part of them.

“We must coexist as humans who care about each other or perish as fools who can't think beyond our ethnicities and civilizations.”

Madesi has received numerous accolades and awards, including the E. Lisa Panayotidis Graduate Scholarship in Interdisciplinary Education Research.

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