Obvious racism easy to condemn
Two episodes of racism have played prominently in the news in Nova Scotia over the last week. One is contemporary and one historical, but in a sense these labels are inverted.
The contemporary episode is the burning cross placed on the lawn of an interracial couple in Poplar Grove, Hants County. A man shouting racial epithets ran off into the night. Police have arrested two brothers from a nearby community who are spending this weekend in jail while facing charges that include public incitement of hatred.
Though this is a current story it’s also an anachronism, a thing out of time and also place. Cross-burnings, lynchings and that sort of thing find their cultural reference in the American South, post-Civil War. These imported trappings are dated in another way as well because they evoke an overt kind of racial extremism that is no longer tolerated anywhere near mainstream Canadian society.
The cross-burning was immediately condemned by public officials and the community, and a rally is scheduled for today in Windsor in support of the targeted couple – Shayne Howe, a black man, and his wife Michelle Lyon, who is white.
The other racial story of the week is about the forced relocation of a black community, ostensibly for its own good. Though the destruction of Africville, on the shore of Halifax’s Bedford Basin, occurred nearly a half-century ago, it feels in some ways more contemporary and relevant than the cross-burning a week ago because the motivating attitudes are more insidious and persistent.
Earlier in the last century Sydney produced a similar relocation on a smaller scale when some 20 Mi’kmaq families, after years of official pressure, abandoned the Kings Road reserve for the new territory of Membertou. Descendants got an official apology in 1999 from the then mayor of the Cape Breton Regional Municipality, David Muise, for the City of Sydney’s role in forcing the relocation. Halifax Mayor Peter Kelly this week apologized to former residents of Africville and their descendants as plans for a permanent memorial to the community were unveiled.
Purely malicious racism such as cross-burning is easy to identify and condemn; it advertises itself and the ignorance that underlies it. A trickier proposition is the patronizing efforts of sometimes well-meaning people to tell racially or ethnically distinct communities how – and in some cases even where – they should live. And subtler still are the often invisible attitudes that do not overtly coerce or discriminate against racial minorities but nevertheless result in their effective marginalization.
So while it’s fine to feel a bit of self-satisfaction in Nova Scotia’s unanimity against cross-burners and to celebrate the measure of closure achieved through modern-day apologies for past wrongs, it should be with the realization that it’s easiest to confront with what’s easiest to see. None of this means the work is done and everything’s OK.