Racism – A Tale of Two Nations

By Marvin Ross

My intention is not to come across as smug which many Canadians can be when talking about the US. I am hoping to point out some fundamental differences between Canada and the US that, I think, deserve some analysis – and that is racism.

Despite the great similarities between the two countries, racism has evolved differently. I am not so naive as to suggest that racism is not a problem in Canada but it is much less so than in the US and certainly,  first Nations still have a long way to go. However, numerous people have commented that the support for Trump was motivated by racism given what he emphasized in the campaign and I totally agree. Actually, the great American satirist and commentator, H.L. Mencken, predicted the Trump win. He said:

“As democracy is perfected, the office of president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.”

And so, maybe the inner soul of many Americans is in agreement with what Trump said.

One study that is being quoted to explain what appears to be a racist backlash is research suggesting that having demonstrated that they are not prejudiced by electing a Black president, people feel they have license to demonstrate their discriminatory views.

I’ve attended numerous medical conferences in the US and was stunned to see the divide between Black and White. The first conference I attended was the American College of Cardiology in Atlanta in the late 1990s. There was a parallel meeting of the Black Cardiology Association within it. There is also a Black psychiatry association founded in 1969 in part to address the barriers that Black psychiatrists encountered.. Then there is a Black caucus of the American Library Association to help recruit African American Librarians. In one hotel I was at in Houston, there was a meeting of the Hispanic MBA Association which was developed to open doors for Hispanics with MBAs.

I have American friends who tell me that a deep seated racism still exists but that it is (or has been till now) kept in check. Trump has let the genie out of the bottle as demonstrated by the reports of racist incidents all over the US since the election. And while this review of a book that I publish on the trauma of growing up as the child of Holocaust survivors denying the existence of the Holocaust was posted on Amazon just before the election, I suspect Trump’s rhetoric gave the reviewer license to come out of the woodwork.  When confronted with these racist incidents  in his interview on 60 Minutes, Trump thought much of it was generated by the media but did tell his followers to stop. What was disappointing was that the interviewer did not ask him what he expected when he inflamed his followers with anti-Hispanic and anti-Muslim rhetoric.

Toronto is one of the most racially diverse cities in the world and home to 230 different nationalities. It is home to a large annual Caribbean Festival, Greek and Italian Festivals, a number of China Towns, Korea Town, East Indian areas, and people who, for the most part, get along well as this example of multi-ethnic co-operation demonstrates. It was not always like that. Growing up in the 1950’s, Toronto was white, Anglo Saxon and Protestant run by the Loyal Orange Order. The big event was the July 12 Orange Parade which celebrated the Protestant defeat of the Catholics at the River Boyne by King William in 1690.

In 1875, Orangemen rioted because they took offense at a Catholic procession and thousands rocked the core of the city. Well into the 20th Century, Orangemen were the centre of partisan politics in Toronto. In 1933, Toronto, experienced the Christie Pits riot when a gang of youths unfurled Nazi flags after a predominantly Jewish baseball team won a semi final game. Jews, assisted by Italians, battled the flag bearers and their followers for hours all over the downtown in what was called the worst riot in Toronto history. Years later, that was the park where I played baseball and went swimming.

In my school days, there were very few Blacks other than the small numbers who mostly came via the underground railway, few South Asians, Chinese, and others. The main ethnics were Jews and Italians and we Jews new enough that certain parts of the city were dangerous for us to go to. The Danforth was one area (now Greektown) and the Beaches where the Nazi group allegedly came from. We also knew that there were quota systems in universities, bans against hiring Jews by hospitals, law firms, banks, etc,  neighbourhoods that would not sell to Jews, resorts that would not rent to them, and the list went on.

In my early teens, our Jewish family doctor referred me to a medical specialist for a problem. When my mother asked if he was any good, the doctor said, he is one of us at the Toronto General so he must be very good to be on staff. I later read that that specialist was specifically hired to break the ban of Jews at the hospital. My dentist of many years back then once told me that the only way he could get into dentistry was because he played on a national championship teen basketball team. He went to the director of recreation for the City of Toronto and told him of his desire to study dentistry but he couldn’t because he was Jewish. “Leave it to me” the official who was probably an Orangeman told him. He was accepted.

Similar problems existed for the few Blacks at the time and I have no doubt they still experience problems today but it is improving (I hope). Historian, Irving Abella, gave a very good history and reasons for change in an address in 2000 called Jews, Human Rights, and the Making of a New Canada.  Abella’s wife, a refugee who was born in a displaced persons camp post Holocaust, sits on the Supreme Court of Canada. Abella mentions that Bora Laskin could not get a job in law when he returned to Canada from Harvard Law School. His wife, a trained cosmetician, could not get hired at Eatons (the large department store). Laskin eventually became the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada. In 1961 when Louis Rasminski (who graduated from the high school that I went to) was named Governor of the Bank of Canada, Ottawa ceased being what former British High Commissioner Joe Garner called the most “anti-Jewish capital city” he had ever encountered.

How people actually managed to accept a less racist society in Canada is a mystery. Bringing in anti-discrimination legislation cannot change attitudes but it did. We may still have a long way to go but we have come very far in my lifetime.

The problem of licensing as mentioned by psychologists in the US has not happened here either. We have had a female Chinese Governor General, a Black Haitian female Francophone Governor General and a Black Lieutenant Governor in Ontario. As representatives of the Queen, they are really only ceremonial but they were out there for all to see. And the Lieutenant Governor, Lincoln Alexander, was voted in 2006 as the greatest Hamiltonian of all time by readers of the Hamilton Spectator. Steel City Hamilton is often referred to as a rust belt city. Alexander was the first Black Member of the House of Commons elected four times and has a highway named after him.

After all this, my question remains, how did Canada evolve into a more tolerant society willing to take in thousands of Syrian refugees when the US refuses most refugees and does not seem to have evolved much? Someone suggested that the violence of slavery and the violence of its ending in the Civil War marked the American psyche forever. I don’t know but I do think it is worth exploring the reasons for the difference between our two countries.

Meanwhile, let us hope that the Donald has enough sense to put a halt to the activities of his followers.

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3 thoughts on “Racism – A Tale of Two Nations

  1. Thoughtful column, There is a very ugly side of human nature going on here with a large dollop of naivety. The man now has power. He has stirred up hate to benefit his ascent to the most powerful position in the word. Divide and rule etc

    The discussion last night on the agenda seemed to be just talking heads and not coming to grips with real threats from someone who has used all tactics to win particular the psychiatrist. Maybe they did I did not hear the whole thing . I favour dr Dawson’s take on this. Unpalatable but likely more to the truth.

    IN Trump the world now is in the hands of a very wild unethical individual. The panel should have spoken to that. The rust belt maybe one thing but having a wild finger on the button is quite another. STAY ON GUARD WORLD,but that is not easy given the problems in the UK etc The confusion out there has allowed the Donald to slip into power.

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  2. We should not have been surprised by the November 8 outcome, but we were because we were as smug as Hillary Clinton, Janet Stein on the Agenda, hit it on the head when she said that Hillary lost the election when she called the Trump supporters “deplorable” or a basket of deplorables, while we have been talkning multiculturalism, the Americans were talking “quotas” the 1924 immigration Act, or the other Act in 1952 that Truman had vetoed, His veto was overruled…

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  3. Marvin, I got a lot of history from your letter; much more knowledgeable. I understand the kind of man you are to take a chance on publishing Anika and my African-American book, and market it in so many places; black and white.

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