South of what, exactly? »« Black History Month: The KKK in Oakville, Ontario

Reflections on the Oakville Klan story

I want to follow up this morning’s post with a couple of things that were sitting in the back of my mind as I was reading.

Canada’s polite racism, and the ‘tone’ crowd

One of the defining features of racism in Canada is that it usually comes disguised in very neutral, inoffensive language. Canada’s myth of its own “non-racist” status owes dearly to the fact that for the most part, outright racial hostility was much less common here than in the United States. This is not in any way to say that racism didn’t exist (as this book more or less conclusively proves), but rather that we found euphemistic ways to express violent thoughts without having to use the appropriately violent words, for fear of shocking our delicate consciousnesses.

While it’s not a perfect analogy, I couldn’t help but think of the endless admonishments that people press into service about the importance of “tone” in social justice movements. While tone has a role to play in persuasiveness, the argument about tone often manifests itself as a proxy for righteousness. In the nagging tones of faux-concern, people often chastise participants in social justice conversations for “demonizing” or otherwise offending members of the majority group. “Tone” is used as a way of dismissing the disempowered as being “too angry” or “divisive”, rather than recognizing that whatever anger there is is entirely justified, and the divisions pre-extant.

What this piece highlights particularly well for me is how destructive that argument can be. A mob showed up to a couple’s house at night and intimidated them into abandoning the safety of their home. At the very least, the threat of physical violence was implied. Members of what today would be termed a terrorist organization escaped arrest and prosecution because of the inaction of the chief of police. And the response from the newspapers? A series of commentaries about how polite and well-behaved the bigots were as they violated the human rights of Johnson and Jones.

Retributive justice

I struggle to reconcile my liberalism with the idea of judicial punishment. I think that the Klansmen should have been severely punished. I think a three month jail sentence is only marginally better than a $50 fine (about $640 in today’s dollars). I think the fact that the attorney prosecuting the case was shockingly negligent in requesting such a punishment, and if I had been Ira Johnson I would have been outraged that my dignity was considered so cheap.

That being said, I don’t recognize the value of punishment as a way of doing anything other than satisfying our lust for revenge. Were the Klan members who didn’t get punished going to mend their ways because their compatriot faced a few months’ imprisonment? The Klan wasn’t above threats, arson, and other violent acts as a method of achieving their goals. Would a few scattered fines here and there really derail their mission of ‘cleansing’ Canada of all non-white non-Protestants? I hardly think so.

This is, for me, a looming unanswered question: can I support retributive justice when I know that, except in a few circumstances, punishment doesn’t deter crime? What does it mean that I was at least slightly mollified to learn that the appellate court thought a fine was too little? What does it mean that I thought three months was still not enough?

As below, so above

One of the sub-theses of this year’s Black History Month series is that Canada’s history is not radically different from America’s when it comes to the pervasiveness of racism. This example is perhaps a pitch-perfect encapsulation of the difference between Canada and the USA. The KKK was an American organization that metastasized to Canada, where it developed its own agenda and list of priorities, but kept the basic tenets of hatred for anyone who wasn’t a white Protestant. It was different in style, but identical in substance.

Racism in a Candian context may not have come from the United States (although I’m sure more than a few tenets made their way up here), but I see the differences as being of style rather than substance. The justice system still saw preventing racial integration as a valid goal, even if it wasn’t willing to turn a blind eye to vigilante mobs enforcing such prevention. The justice system still saw a valid role for racial discrimination, at least insofar as that kind of bigotry didn’t seem relevant to the legal reasoning behind the sentencing or the denial of appeal. The only real difference was the degree to which physical violence and overt hatred were tolerated.

The thing that made the KKK so dangerous wasn’t the fact that they were capable of violence (although, to be sure, that’s a pretty big part of it). The KKK was able to commit its acts due to the silent complicity and at times willing participation of a justice system that saw racial division (of course with whites on top) as the good and natural order of the universe. The Canadian courts certainly didn’t differ from the American ones in that regard, and it is worthwhile to ponder what would have happened if the Klan had been able to establish a stronger foothold here.

The question that remains unanswered to me is whether Canada’s less-dramatic history of racial prejudice (when compared to the USA) is the reason why we don’t talk about our own civil rights struggles, or if it is instead a product of our shame and shyness around our own guilt and complicity to things we abhor today. After all, even our conservative politicians sing paeans to immigration, even as they seek to limit it. I find it hard to imagine that an anti-immigrant, anti-French, anti-Catholic movement would find much sympathy from my countrymen today, but maybe that’s just a lack of imagination on my part.

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