03/23/2012 05:07 EDT | Updated 05/22/2012 05:12 EDT

One Kind of Racism is Not Like the Other

The majority of Canadians are racist toward Muslims. That's the gist of a countrywide poll released earlier this week. The Léger Marketing survey shows that 52 per cent of the people in this country "mistrust" Muslims, and not only that: 42 per cent agreed with the phrase "If there is discrimination against Muslims, it's mainly their fault."

In other words, more than half of Canadians don't trust a group of people because of their religious affiliation. And a lot of Canadians believe this is the Muslims' own fault.

To my mind, the 52 per cent number is definitely too low, though it should be too high. Allow me to explain:

Like the great song from the musical Avenue Q says, "everyone's a little bit racist." We all carry biases and petty vendettas against various races, ethnicities, cultures, sexualities -- it's an emotional response that, for whatever reason, is hardwired into our brains.

You can't get away from it, not all the time at least. The racist thoughts creep back in when things don't go the way you want them to. It's such a simple solution to life's ills that it can be hard to reject out of hand.

I'd bet a good two-thirds of Canadians, probably more, are actually mildly racist toward Muslims, not because they specifically hate Muslims but because they are, in one way or another, mild racists at heart. That inherent racism is only expressing itself now as mistrust in Muslims because, lately, some very angry and militant Muslims, in the name of Allah or Osama bin Laden, have been responsible, more than any other group of people, for making Western living a little less light-hearted, a little more stressful than it was before Islamist terrorism became a fact of life.

But that sort of faint racist thought in and of itself isn't really a problem and can't really be classified as such if more than half of us are doing it. No, the real problem is that 52 per cent of Canadians conceded their tame racism out loud. In that sense, the number is way, way too high, alarmingly high.

The flip-side of "everyone's a little bit racist" is "but no one should admit to it." There's a very valid reason for this: to verbalize one's odious biases is to make racist thoughts actionable. How so? Because when you say something out loud, there's a good chance someone else is going to hear it, and a decent chance he'll repeat it, and so on -- thinking a private thought doesn't hurt anyone, but stating or acknowledging it can. When you utter those words, they hover in the ether, there for the next person to discover and assimilate.

Which leads us to the other big number to come out of the Léger poll: 49 per cent -- the number of Canadians who say racism is most often spread via the Internet.

In a sense, this is unsurprising: mainstream T.V., radio, and print publications long ago banished any and all racist expression, but the Internet remains a relative Wild West -- all sorts of sick people that would never in a million years be invited onto a CNN set or the pages of the New York Times can broadcast their own slickly produced "news" online. The most banal of Google searches, worded slightly wrong, can lead you to a racist website, and often these pages appear wholly similar to your average news, networking, or information page. Racism, in other words, is living openly online.

The 49 per cent number is particularly scary, because it suggests that half of Canadians, by design or unwittingly, are encountering racism online. Despite laws on the books to combat it, racism still operates with impunity on the Internet. There's no excuse for this -- strictly enforced Internet hate laws are a no-brainer: as the Internet becomes the primary engine of our work and social lives, as it becomes our main means of communication, education, and entertainment, we should be making every effort to keep racists from spreading their hate there, and when they manage to slip through the i-cracks we should be prosecuting them. We wouldn't allow such hatred to find a home in/on classic media, why should we let it have a free pass online?

Getting serious about racism on the internet won't end the racism that exists in our brains, and it won't stop Canadians from mistrusting Muslims. (That will likely only happen when someone, or something, else takes radical Islam's place as the predominant threat to our way of life.) But at least doing so will keep the haters from spreading their bile. And then we can comfortably get back to our silent -- and perfectly benign -- personal racism.