Prof Dexter Voisin warns against racialized poverty

By Lincoln DePradine

Dr Dexter Voisin

A University of Toronto (U of T) professor, who recently moved here from the United States, is warning Canadians about the dangers of “racialized poverty’’, saying it leads to the kind of “structural’’ and “neighbourhood violence’’ that is prevalent in American cities like Chicago.

“In Canada, we are moving towards racialized poverty, which is something the US has had for decades,’’ professor Dexter R. Voisin said last Friday in Toronto. “Neighbourhood violence in the US is very much a story of economics, a story of race and a story of location.’’

Trinidad-born Voisin made the remarks at the launch of his first book, “America the Beautiful and Violent: Black Youth and Neighbourhood Trauma in Chicago’’.

“It’s about social inequality and how social inequality impact life-changes and what we’ve come to call neighbourhood violence,’’ said Voisin, who lived in Chicago for two decades and served as professor at the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago.

Voisin, whose expertise is in areas such as community violence, mental health and HIV prevention, holds Master’s degrees in social work and philosophy and possesses a PhD. from Columbia University in New York.

“I Never intended to become a social worker,’’ Voisin disclosed at the book launch at A Different Booklist Cultural Centre on Bathurst Street. “I never even knew the profession existed,’’ he added, explaining that he chose the field after meeting a social worker who inspired him.

“I saw the power of one life impacting another life. I said I want to use my life to do that; to be a service, to do good to help others,’’ said Voisin, who was hired as dean of the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work at U of T on July 1 for a five-year term. He’s the first non-white person to hold the position in the school’s 105-year history.

America the Beautiful and Violent’’ explores, among other things, racism and sexism and their connection to “silent trauma’’ and educational outcomes. Voisin said the presence of professors of colour at “white institutions’’, such as colleges and universities, “is not just for Black and Brown students. It’s also for white students. It expands the narrative in terms of what a professor looks like’’.

Voisin argued that the word “violence’’ has to be deconstructed, saying “what is termed as violent and violent behaviour “is very often filtered through the prism of race, class, geography and location’’.

“Violence happens on many different dimensions,’’ he said, pointing out that “loud trauma’’ – such as mass shootings and homicides – receives the “most media attention and resources’’.

However, according to Voisin, “structural violence’’, which frequently leads to the “manifestation of interpersonal violence’’, and silent and race-related trauma, “which is more prevalent and pervasive’’ than loud trauma, often go “unrecognized and untreated’’.

“Violence could never be understood just in terms of physical force,’’ said Voisin. “Violence also includes assault on the personhood, dignity, sense of worth or value of the victim.’’

It took Voisin more than three years to complete “America the Beautiful and Violent’’, which is published by Columbia University Press.

The book revolves around five youth, whose names have been changed to protect their identity, and their families and communities.

“It’s a story of young people from young people’s perspective,’’ Voisin said. “About what happens in their communities; how they see violence; how they come to understand the violent structures that keep them in the shadow of the stars and the stripes. But, more importantly, how they’re being resilient and finding their way pass that and how communities are rebuilding themselves.’’

US President Barack Obama, who was succeeded in 2016 by Donald Trump, lived and worked in Chicago with his wife Michelle before assuming the presidency in January 2009.

“The book touches on Trump and his characterization of Chicago as a lawless city. But it not only touches on Trump, it also touches on other US presidents and shows how some of their policies have led to the existence of two Americas,’’ Voisin said.

As well, the book examines success in the US through what is popularly known as the “American Dream’’.

“It looks at folks who have achieved the American Dream. Michelle and Barack could be seen as folks who have achieved the American Dream. But, many would also argue that it’s a myth of the American Dream,’’ Voisin said.

“People like Michelle and Barack, who have risen to those places of prominence and influence, have done so because they have had access to resources like solid education, education that provides an opportunity for networking and social uplift.’’

Voisin told the Caribbean Camera that “America the Beautiful and Violent’’ is not just about Black families in the United States.    

“It’s about Black families across the Diaspora. Chicago is just used as a case study to amplify some of the structural inequalities and tensions,’’ Voisin said.

“The message is one of resiliency, one of strength and one of complexity. Very often we look at folks who live in low-income communities and they’re demonized. This book, through their stories and narratives, humanizes them in their struggle and attempts to achieve not only the American Dream but the Canadian, the British Dreams. It’s a struggle for people of colour across the globe and how systems of inequality create a separate reality.’’