The Sunday Magazine

How the spectacle of U.S. racism allows Canada to overlook its own

Canadians have been outraged by the litany of racist violence and police brutality against Black Americans, the explosion of protest, and the inflammatory rhetoric issued from the White House. But Wendell Nii Laryea Adjetey, who teaches history at McGill University, argues that focusing on the scale of racism and violence in the U.S. allows Canadians to feel morally superior and ignore or deny racism and police brutality against Black Canadians.

'In Canada, anti-Black racism is as old as Confederation'

Female prisoners arrested during the rioting in Detroit, board a bus at Wayne County Jail on July 28, 1967, under the watch of National Guardsmen for transfer to Eloise, a detention home for women on the edge of the city. Mass arrests of men, women and juveniles had taxed jail facilities in the city. (AP Photo/File)
Wendell Nii Laryea Adjetey teaches history at McGill University.

While media attention is fixed on racism and police brutality in the United States, we in Canada risk overlooking disturbing truths at home.

Racial violence in the United States has always had "a magnetic appeal in the Canadian imagination, especially in the Canadian press," said Wendell Nii Laryea Adjetey, an assistant professor of history at McGill University.

"There is a common perception among Canadians that because anti-Black racism is not manifested in the same way, the same spectacular, gory way that it is in the United States, then anti-Black racism is not really a factor in Canadian society," Adjetey said. "Of course, that is grossly inaccurate and misguided."

"To focus on anti-Black racism in the United States has been in many ways, the saving grace of the dominant society in Canada, because by pointing to the plank in your neighbour's eye, it has the effect of taking away attention from the plank in your own."

He sees a striking parallel between the Canadian conversations in 2020 and in 1967, when cities across the United States erupted in protests against police brutality and racism. 

In this July 1967 file photo, a National Guardsman stands at a Detroit intersection during riots in the city. Detroit wasn't the first of the riots in the summer of 1967, and it was far from the last. Buffalo, New York, and Newark, New Jersey, preceded it; in the course of the summer, more than 150 cases of civil unrest erupted across the United States. (The Associated Press)

The Detroit uprising

Part of Adjetey's graduate research explored how the 1967 Detroit uprising was viewed in Canada.

Hundreds of people run down 12th Street on Detroit's westside throwing stones and bottles at storefronts. The riot started on July 23, 1967 after police raided an after-hours club in a predominantly African-American neighbourhood. The raid, though, was just the spark. Many in the community blamed frustrations blacks felt toward the mostly white police, and city policies that pushed families into ageing and over-crowded neighbourhoods. (AP Photo/File)

"[In 1967], there were roughly 15 or 16 different riots or uprisings. Detroit was especially bloody and destructive," he said. "The situation in Detroit was one of stark and divisive racial conflict. There were issues over police brutality, over deindustrialization and unemployment, and African-Americans bore the brunt of this economic uncertainty."

The uprising in Detroit in July 1967 attracted particular attention in Canada because of its proximity to Windsor, Ont.

"Residents in Windsor literally stood across the river from Detroit and had picnics to watch Detroit burn to the ground," Adjetey said.

Firefighters try to control blazing buildings after riots in Detroit on July 25, 1967. Hundreds of fires were reported in the city. Five days of violence would leave 33 blacks and 10 whites dead, and more than 1,400 buildings burned. More than 7,000 people were arrested. (AP Photo/File)

"This particular image of Canadians watching their neighbour's house burned to the ground is akin to the ways that white Americans in the US South would have picnics when an African-American would be lynched, and when mob justice would be meted out."

As Canadians followed the news of the Detroit uprising, it also had the effect of "absolving the Canadian psyche, of absolving the Canadian imagination, that forms of anti-Black racism persisted in Canadian society," Adjetey said.

"Most Canadians, as a result of the fantastical forms that violence took in the United States, specifically racial violence, were able to overlook the often subtle, although nefarious, forms of racial discrimination in Canada."

Parallels with 2020

As in 1967, the protests over the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor have attracted widespread attention and outrage in Canada.

"As the Canadian media, as Canadian civilians, as our government officials consume these images and reflect on these challenges in the United States, it has again that effect of overlooking the challenges here," he said.

Multiple fires burn in a section of riot-torn Detroit on July 24, 1967, about three miles west of the downtown area. Five days of violence would leave 33 blacks and 10 whites dead, and more than 1,400 buildings burned. More than 7,000 people were arrested. (The Associated Press)

He urges Canadians to avoid comparisons with the U.S. to deny the racism that exists in Canada.

"Comparing the two countries requires a great deal of nuance, principally because Canada's population is one-tenth of the United States. The United States is awash in firearms. The United States has various historical challenges, specifically regarding a critical mass of Black people who were enslaved there and whose descendants continue to live there. So that historical memory of centuries of subjugation and racial terrorism is very present," he said.

National Guardsmen, called in to restore order by Gov. George Romney, stop their vehicle near a Detroit fire truck on July 24, 1967 in the neighbourhood that was ravaged by rioting the previous day. (AP Photo/File)

"The historical record in Canada is very different, because Black people have never been a critical mass in Canada, and even in pre-Confederation Canada. It would be more apropos to compare Canada to England, Australia or New Zealand, than [to] the United States. You simply cannot compare the two countries given the vast qualitative differences. However, that does not disavow the fact that anti-Black racism is manifested in many ways."

"In Canada, anti-Black racism is as old as Confederation. And if you go into Canada's colonial history, the chattel enslavement of African peoples was a present phenomenon."

Protesters demonstrate against police action in the death of George Floyd and others in Halifax on June 1, 2020. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

Today, he said, "police brutality against Black people is real. Police misconduct where Black people are concerned is very real. I have many friends who have experienced this unfortunate and sordid aspect of law enforcement in our country," he said.

Adjetey said it's essential for Canadians to reckon with the unique dynamics of racism at home, because downplaying it only exacerbates the problems.

"[By disavowing] it, as Canadians often tend to do where anti-Black racism is concerned, we make it more possible that the problems will only fester and that Black people will become alienated from the society and the country in which they live," he said.

"And the reason why we see urban uprisings [today] in the United States, and the reason why we saw many urban uprisings in the 20th century United States, was because African-Americans were deeply alienated from the society in which they lived."

Click 'listen' above to hear the full interview.

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of.


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