“Is there a problem? The problem is whether or not there is a problem? That’s a problem.” R. D. Laing.
It seems like nothing can happen in the United States without the issue of race rearing its ugly head. The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina has seen angry accusations of “Bush doesn’t like black people” and pointed questions from Superdome inhabitants “Do you see any white people here, Miss?”
But is it race, or is it class, or is there a difference any more? The problem is, what is the problem? Unlike the paraphrase of Mr. Laing’s word puzzle a problem exists, but none of us really know how to put our finger exactly on what it is. Or perhaps nobody has the bravery to be honest enough to say what the problems are?
The facts as we are told by pictures and the press from post-hurricane reports show the majority of people, who were resident of New Orleans, that have been left stranded are indeed black. As the woman who asked the reporter from “The Globe and Mail” said above “Do you see any white people here, Miss?”
The majority of people who live in the inner cities of United States are people of colour; Hispanic, Black, or Asian. They also happen to be the people least well off economically. I do not pretend to be familiar enough with the demographics of every major city in the United States to make the pejorative statement that this is true of every major metropolis, but it appears to be a prevalent trend.
In Toronto, the city both my Mother and I grew up in, the pattern has been since her childhood days back in the 1930s, that each new wave of immigrants has landed in the downtown core. As each group gains a measure of prosperity they expand outwards into the city to be replaced by the next wave.
Italians, Portuguese, Indian, Chinese, Vietnamese, and Jamaican people have all, at one point in time, entered en masse into the city. Since humans tend to congregate around the familiar, each population will find a neighbourhood that they can call their own. They may not all live in the same part of town, but this is the neighbourhood that they will find foods they like, books in their native language, and their places of worship.
Unlike the traditional ghettos of Europe that were enforced prisons, these neighbourhoods evolved naturally and offer comfort instead of confinement. In the case of Toronto, some of the more long-residing ethnic groups actually have two or three such cities within the city scattered throughout the Greater Toronto Area (G.T.A.).
It is quite common to see groups sharing neighbourhoods. In the multiethnic downtown core area of Toronto known as “Kensington Market”, which has seen successive waves of immigrants, you will find a synagogue nestled up against a Vietnamese restaurant crammed against a Lebanese café.
Toronto’s problem neighbourhoods economically are predominantly in the suburbs, and there too it becomes an issue of colour, in the sense that predominant among the poor are people of colour. Most of them are first- or second-generation Canadians who are still struggling to find their place in an alien society. For many the issue of language is a problem, as it has been for so many immigrants in the past. (My great grandmother never learned more than a few words of English; all she could speak was Yiddish)
With the British having abolished slavery before Canada was even a nation, we have never had the political divisions around race that Americans have faced. That is not to say the same problems don’t exist here, because they do. Ask any young black man how often he’s stopped while driving an expensive car in Toronto and it will compare with the same statistics as those of any major city in the States, if not a higher percentage.
I know I seem to be digressing, but I’m trying to outline the differences between what happens to immigrant populations, and what has happened with the black populations in the United States. Unlike other minorities who have used the urban centres as their entrée into society at large, the vast majority of black people have remained stuck in the same physical locations that they started.
Why hasn’t there been a greater integration of the black population into mainstream America? It’s been forty years since the abolishment of segregation, but full integration of society is far from being accomplished. Something like this does not just occur on its own. There have to be reasons. Unfortunately no one seems to be able to get beyond the rhetoric of anger and accusation to be able to answer the question why with any degree of honesty.
One can understand the anger on the part of black people when they are vilified by implication in the media or their frustration when they see pictures of thousands of people stranded awaiting relief and there’s not a white face to be seen except those holding weapons. How would that make you feel if the situation were reversed?
I don’t know if it is possible for this discussion to even take place. But it needs to happen in any society that is as racially diverse as North America. (I’m including Canada.) The current status quo is dangerous and unhealthy. Figuring out the problem, is a problem we need to stop having a problem with.