Society

Two More Solitudes

No man is an island, but a community can become marooned on one. Following a spate of blackon- black murders, culminating in a teenager being gunned down on the steps of a church last fall, Torontonians concluded that it is no longer possible to be colour-blind. Violence, the thinking goes, is in the blood of young black men who tote guns, protect turf, and create mayhem. As the general population has no frame of reference for this problem, the black community must resolve it themselves, back on their own islands.

Even the language of political correctness cannot mask the essential message: blacks suffer from particular cultural pathologies that cannot be explained by history or sociology. There are exceptions to the rule, but black folk are an anthropological other, a parallel society of brutes, and here, in our peaceable kingdom, we don’t have room for murderous gangstas (any more than we do for urban aboriginals). And so, the calls are out for the black middle class to take responsibility, for black fathers to re-enter domestic life and become positive role models for their sons. Such demands are seconded by members of the black establishment, some Canadian, others — putatively with greater experience in this matter — American. With agreement that a social pathogen courses through the veins of young black men and that only blacks can establish a cure, the broader society creeps back to its den, thinking, at long last, we have achieved a level of honest discourse and we have been absolved of responsibility. Certain groups, some say, simply cannot co-exist in a community of communities.

Such a position is consistent with the segregationist philosophy of Malcolm X, a.k.a. El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz. Dressed up by revisionist histories, Spike Lee, and the iconic solidarity of the clenched fist, Malcolm X has been repositioned as a man preaching black racial uplift. In truth, he was a reductionist who insisted that nothing good could come from black integration into white society; that Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream of a colour-blind world was naive, impractical, and would strip blacks of their cultural heritage and essential humanity. Given the choice between two visions — one inclusive and challenging, the other exclusive and comparatively easy — Toronto has sided with Malik Shabazz.

The march toward segregation is being accelerated by black-focus schools which assume that black history is of interest and import only to black students. Similarly, as blacks cluster, alone and apart, to sort out their problems in private, the possibility of black consciousness infusing the white mind withers away. Living in a multicultural society can be hard work, but what does accepting separation amount to? In the United States, it might mean whites not reading Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man or bell hooks or Nelson George. In Canada, it might mean not reading Dionne Brand’s Land to Light On, Austin Clarke’s The Polished Hoe, or the gleeful tales of Lawrence Hill.

I have known Dionne, Austin, and Larry for over ten years. In groups or in pairs, we have done much together. Strangely however, we have always met in public places. Not one of them has ever been to my home, has ever shared dinner with my family. Nor have I been to their homes. In a very real sense, I do not know Dioinvinne, Austin, and Larry, and they do not know me. They are black. I am not. Yet, I have a nagging sense that if we all lived in Chicago, New York, or Baltimore, we would be in the habit of dining together. As an American friend said to me, “Jews and blacks in New York communicate, after a fashion. It might start with a brick thrown, even a death, and then a riot. But afterward the chances are good that they will share a Seder dinner.”

There is no doubt that the shootings and murders that have beset Toronto and its black community are hideous crimes. There is also no doubt that the wider society is guilty of a crime of omission, of settling, for a period, on an empty and shaky tolerance, and then defaulting to segregation in both its subtle and overt guises.

In France such passivity turned deadly. But, in addressing the violence that befell Paris suburbs last fall, French President Jacques Chirac proclaimed: “We shall build nothing lasting if we don’t recognize and don’t accept the diversity of French society. It is written in our history. It’s a source of wealth and a strength.” Perhaps a sense of guilt — over Algeria, over importing cheap African labour — is motivating Chirac and large segments of French society. In the United States, a long history of confronting racial issues brings people to the table. In Toronto, problem avoidance seems the desired path. But with the demand that the black community take care of black-on-black violence itself, we are in danger of selling our cherished multiculturalism down the river.