SPECIAL REPORT

THE RACIST UNDERSIDE

VIOLENCE AND INSULTS INFLAME ETHNIC DISCORD

HILARY MACKENZIE June 25 1990
SPECIAL REPORT

THE RACIST UNDERSIDE

VIOLENCE AND INSULTS INFLAME ETHNIC DISCORD

HILARY MACKENZIE June 25 1990

THE RACIST UNDERSIDE

VIOLENCE AND INSULTS INFLAME ETHNIC DISCORD

PORTRAIT OF TWO NATIONS

In the Brooklyn, N.Y., neighborhood of Bensonhurst last summer, a mob of white youths fatally shot a 16-year-old

black named Yusef Hawkins, who had ventured into the predominantly Italian-American community to consider buying a used car there. Later, when blacks marched through Bensonhurst in protest, they were greeted with chants of “Niggers, go home.” Last

spring, at Calgary’s Crossroads Flea Market, apprentice carpenter Peter Kouda sold lapel pins that depicted a white man in front of three other men: an Oriental person wearing a coolie hat, a Sikh in a turban and a black man clutching a spear. A caption read, “Who is the minority in Canada?” Comparing the pins to the notorious white hoods worn by the racist Ku Klux Klan, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney warned,

“This is the racism that we have to guard against.”

Despite those prominent examples of racial tension, roughly one in four respondents to the Maclean’s/

Decima Two Nations poll in both the United States and Canada say that race relations in their communities have improved in recent years. Majorities—62 per cent of Canadian poll respondents, 56 per cent of Americans—say that there has

Parsons, who is among many North Americans interviewed separately from the poll, says that, in Toronto, “there is increasing antagonism on an individual level.” Adds Parsons, referring to the Canadian Human Rights Act, which outlaws discrimination on grounds of race, color, ethnic origin or religion: “Govern-

been little change. Slightly more Americans than Canadians, 17 per cent compared with 13 per cent, say that race relations in their communities have worsened. John Parsons, a 42year-old native of Huntsville, Ala., who now is a lecturer in medieval history at the University of Toronto, shares the view that relations are worsening. ment policy is one thing, but it happens on a certain level. Individual attitudes cannot be legislated.”

At the same time, the poll points to pronounced hostility towards immigration in North America, with that feeling markedly stronger in the United States than in Canada. Almost three out of five American poll respondents (58 per cent) and about two in five

Canadians (39 per cent) favor a reduction of immigration. Similarly, only six per cent of American respondents support an increase in immigration, while 18 per cent of Canadians say that the immigration rate should rise. Said Jamil Brownson, 48, a geography professor at the University of Montana in Missoula: “Immigration is undercutting the traditional order of society, and it is fostering an increase of racism and ethnocentricity.”

Those sentiments are evident in Canada as well, but many residents interviewed said that immigrants had built Canada and continue to contribute to a healthy cultural diversity. Monik Beauregard, 25, a graduate political science student at the University of Montreal, says flatly that “there should be more immigration.” Added Beauregard, who has also lived in West Africa and New York City: “The world should not have barriers.” Lincoln Steffens, 47, a native of Palo Alto, Calif., who moved to Canada in 1968, agrees with that view. Said Steffens, an urban planner in Calgary: “Bring them all in. They add to our culture.”

The contrasts in American and Canadian attitudes towards immigration now may be rooted in different histories and experiences. Before Confederation, during the era of American slavery, tens of thousands of slaves— estimates range from 30,000 to as high as 100,000—reached Canadian territory from the southern states, many on the Underground Railroad, a secret network of routes and safe houses. Since then, official Canadian policy towards the admission of refugees and immigrants, especially nonwhites, has been equivocal. But against the melting-pot tradition in the United States, where new immigrants traditionally were expected to shed their cultural heritage and adopt that of their new homeland, Canada in recent years has officially encouraged immigrant groups to retain their distinctive characteristics under government multiculturalism policies.

Still, there is a clear increase in immigration from the Third World, and the growth of nonwhite communities in Canadian cities has created new racial tensions.

In his annual report to Parliament in March, Max Yalden, the Canadian federal human rights commissioner, warned, “Racism is likely to grow as the composition of Canada’s population becomes increasingly diverse.”

Disturbing indications that Canada is becoming less tolerant have multiplied across the country. In Alberta, a poster calendar crudely caricatured a Sikh member of the RCMP in a turban, identifying him as “Sgt. Kamell Dung.”

Beneath the Mountie in traditional scarlet tunic, the caption read, “Is this Canadian or does this make you Sikh?” In Thompson, Man., a handbill posted in a store early this year declared that the game season had been cancelled due to a lack of animals. Instead, the poster said, “There will be open season on Indians.” And in Vancouver, the latest wave of immigrants from Hong Kong, which will become part of mainland China in 1997, has provoked a strong backlash. Much of it has been aimed at the well-to-do newcomers’ rapid real estate

purchases, which some people claim have helped to drive up housing prices.

Elsewhere, tempers have flared over a rash of police shootings of blacks. In Montreal, tensions between the black community and local police were aggravated in April when a police officer fatally shot a 26-year-old black man, Presley Leslie, in a nightclub. Similar incidents have occurred in Toronto, setting off a rising chorus of complaints that police treat blacks and other visible minorities unfairly—often with fatal consequences. Early in June, Ontario Provincial Police charged a Toronto police constable with the attempted murder of an unarmed black 16-year-old, Marlon Neal, who was wounded after allegedly speeding through a radar speed trap. Within two years, five Toronto city or suburban policemen have been charged in connection with the shooting of a black person.

Almost all the poll respondents—86 per cent of Americans and 90 per cent of Canadians—said that they believe “all races are created equal.” However, 12 per cent of Americans and 10 per cent of Canadians said that some races “are generally superior to others.” And Elizabeth Cobum, 35, who was bom in Middleton, N.S., and now works for the Quebec government office of tourism in Washington, compared race relations in the United States to French-English relations in Canada. Said Cobum: “There are two solitudes—that would best describe my experience in Washington as it pertains to blacks and whites. There is very little dialogue. I feel there is a wall there.”

not likely to act on it.” Although responses to the

In response to another poll question, majorities in each country—53 per cent of Americans and 61 per cent of Canadians—acknowledged telling ethnic or racial jokes, if only rarely. Forty-six per cent of American respondents and 38 per cent of Canadians claimed that they never do. Many analysts say that such jokes are a sign of at least latent racism. But, for all their negative connotations, experts say, they may also act as a safety valve for

hostilities. “If you can laugh about it,” said Dr. Vamik Volkan, a psychiatrist at the University of Virginia, “you are

poll questions on race generally indicated few significant differences between Canadian and American attitudes, Haitian-born Florence Borsos says that she experienced sharply contrasting attitudes in the two countries. Growing up in the New York borough of Queens, Borsos said that her well-educated, Frenchspeaking family found it hard to associate with black Americans and whites openly spumed them. “Some parents would not let us play with their kids or invite us to their homes,” she said. Then, in 1979, Borsos married a Canadian

Borsos married a Canadian and moved to Buffalo, N.Y., where her husband took postgraduate studies in literature. “One day,” Borsos recalled, “we were walking in our neighborhood holding hands, and a fellow pulled up next to us, rolled down a window and yelled ‘nigger lover’ at my husband.”

Frightened by the anger in the community, Borsos and her husband moved across the border to Niagara Falls, Ont., and later to Ottawa, where she now teaches in an elementary school. “In this community, race relations are good,” she said. But, for many people among Canada’s nonwhite minorities, both immigrant and native, racial

prejudice is no less painful for being less overt than the kind that Borsos experienced in the United States.

HILARY MACKENZIE