The Current

'Far too many commonalities': Trump's tweets serve as reminder Canada and U.S. need to combat racism

U.S. President Donald Trump's tweets attacking four ethnically diverse congresswomen has launched a firestorm of national discourse around racism, but a Canadian activist points out rhetoric that stokes fear and hatred toward minority groups doesn't stop at the border.

U.S. president's attacks 'invite us to take a closer look at our own wrongdoings,' says activist Sarah Adjekum

U.S. President Donald Trump's recent barbs at a group of Democratic congresswomen of colour is a fight over 'white dominance' that's very much tied to American identity, says author Mychal Denzel Smith. (Alex Brandon/The Associated Press)
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U.S. President Donald Trump's tweets attacking four ethnically diverse congresswomen has ignited a firestorm of national discourse around racism, but a Canadian activist points out rhetoric that stokes fear and hatred toward minority groups doesn't stop at the border. 

"Unfortunately there's far too many commonalties between what we're seeing in the States ... and what we're seeing here at home," said Sarah Adjekum, a social worker from Hamilton, Ont.

"Racism isn't new and it definitely has the function of trying to denote who deserves citizenship or is a considered a citizen and who is not."

Trump singled out four Democratic congresswomen of colour last week in a series of racially charged, incendiary tweets, telling them to "go back" to "the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came," rather than tell U.S. politicians how America should be governed.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ayanna S. Pressley of Massachusetts make up "The Squad," as they've become known, who are the centre of the president's hostile exchanges over race and love of country.

The lawmakers have all denounced his comments as "xenophobic, bigoted," calling them a "disruptive distraction from the issues." 

What we're seeing now is the end of polite racism.- Mychal Denzel Smith

Trump's verbal broadside has drawn sharp rebukes from Democrats and even some Republicans, who have derided his remarks as racist and say they completely ignore the fact the women are American citizens.

All but one — Omar who moved from Somalia as a refugee when she was 12 — were born in the U.S. 

Writer Mychal Denzel Smith casts the ongoing confrontation as a fight over "white dominance" that's very much tied to American identity.

"What we're seeing now is the end of polite racism," he told The Current's guest host Laura Lynch.

"People have been unlocked from talking about it in ways that maybe would have been coded language before."

The four congresswomen of colour understood to be the target of the U.S. president's recent barbs responded by telling their supporters to 'not take the bait.' 2:16

Maggie Hagerman is a sociology professor at Mississippi State University. Based on her research, she says it's "a scary moment" for children coming of age in the Trump era. 

During Barack Obama's presidency, Hagerman found white children were "buying into narratives of racial progress." Since 2016, she's noticed youth "don't care" if these narratives are being challenged or interrupted by Trump's explicit racist rhetoric and behaviour.

"One thing that's very striking to me is that when I talk to these children's parents, they themselves are, you know, almost inarticulate about race and racism, and the history of racism in America," she said.

"And so I think that if white adults are not able to even speak to one another about these realties, I'm not really sure how they're then going to help educate their own children."

Canada's history of racism

As a Canadian, Adjekum believes the president's remarks "invite us to take a closer look at our own wrongdoings, [and] our own history as a country."

From the military's gay purge to the residential school system, she pointed out that Canada has a long record of discrimination against certain communities.

But that legacy isn't frozen in time.

Canada has been a leader on welcoming refugees in recent years, resettling more refugee claimants in 2018 than any other country, according to the United Nationals Refugee Agency's global report. 

In a new poll commissioned by CBC News, a majority of respondents want Canada to accept fewer refugees and do more to encourage skilled labourers to immigrate to the country. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

The results of pre-election survey conducted by CBC News suggests Canadians are divided on immigration, with clear limits on the kind of migrations they find acceptable. More than half of respondents, for instance, believe Canada should not be accepting more refugees. The results come amid a negative shift in tone on migration around the world.

Canada "continues to have anti-immigrant and anti-refugee views," explains Adjekum, which are influenced by language coming out of the U.S.

The framing of Trump's attack when he calls for the congresswomen to go back to "the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came," she says, is "something deeper, something biological" that's often based on religion and skin colour. 

"These ideas of people having to go back to their country, [and] these ideas of what it means to be Canadian or American are as old as confederation," she said

How to tackle racism

Smith is the author of Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching: A Young Black Man's Education, which recounts his experience as a black millennial in the U.S.

He said that combating racism must go beyond "looking to root out the racist within the system" because, he claims, racism is deeply entrenched in American institutions themselves.

"We have to address the ways in which even purportedly colour-blind policy has a disparate impact on on marginalized communities," he said.

School segregation and the criminal justice system in the U.S. and Canada, for example, are made up of an array of exclusionary policies, which deny resources to certain groups of people, like black and Indigenous communities.

"You have to be honest about the fact that this is a reinforcement of white identity and white isolation from other communities that they'd rather not deal with," Smith said.


Written by Amara McLaughlin with files from CBC News. Produced by Alison Masemann, Rachel Levy-McLaughlin and Ines Colabrese.