Canadian political leaders' loud silence on racist violence

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Cynthia Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lance, Reverend DePayne Middleton-Doctor, Reverend Clementa Pickney, Tywanza Sanders, Reverend Daniel Simmons, Reverend Sharonda Singleton, Myra Thompson: murdered in the shooting attack on Charleston's Emanuel AME Church, their deaths were met with dead silence from the leaders of Canada's federal political parties.

No public statements emanated from the Conservative, NDP, and Liberal PR offices denouncing the white supremacy-fuelled homicidal rampage; the Twittersphere remained unmarked by Canadian state declarations of war against anti-Black racism, or even expressions of condolence to the families of the victims. (Although our prime minister was not completely silent on social media the day of the shooting -- he did tweet congratulations to Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews on his Stanley Cup victory.)

Canadian political leaders have remained similarly unperturbed and unresponsive in the face of other deadly incidents of racist violence, such as the epidemic of police assaults on Black communities across the United States, and the Islamophobic killing of three Muslim students in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

These fatalities of White supremacy do not seem to register on the Canadian political radar -- or, at least, on the Twitter accounts of Canadian political elites.

Such reticence in response to mass killings is not the rule across the board. The Charlie Hebdo attack generated jeremiads about the danger of Islamist violence, and proclamations of civilizational unity to defend the value of freedom of expression. (Never mind that dozens were arrested in France post-Hebdo for the speech crime of "defending terrorism.")

"This barbaric act [...] is a grim reminder that no country is immune to the types of terrorist attacks we have seen elsewhere around the world," our prime minister warned. "Canada and its allies will not be intimidated and will continue to stand firmly together against terrorists who would threaten the peace, freedom and democracy our countries so dearly value."

More recently, assaults allegedly linked to ISIS in Tunisia, Kuwait, and France elicited an outpouring of solidaristic sentiment from all three federal party leaders.

Harper seized the opportunity to sound the war horn once again against the "jihadist" threat: "The international jihadist movement has declared war on Canada and the shared values of freedom, democracy and human dignity. [...] We will continue to protect Canadians, support the international coalition to degrade the jihadist threat, and stand shoulder to shoulder with our allies in defiance of this evil."

Less overtly bellicose in their responses, both NDP leader Thomas Mulcair and Liberal leader Justin Trudeau also expressed condolences to and solidarity with the attack victims -- according the dead an acknowledgement of shared humanity denied those murdered in Charleston.  

The disparity in reactions is particularly egregious, since multiple studies suggest that right-wing militancy and white supremacy pose a greater threat than Muslim violence in North America.

A report released by the New America Foundation found that "white supremacists, anti-government fanatics and other non-Muslim extremists" have killed twice as many people in the United States as "radical Muslims" have since 9/11.

And according to Professors Charles Kurzman and David Schanzer's survey of over 300 American law enforcement agencies, "the main terrorist threat in the United States is not from violent Muslim extremists, but from right-wing extremists."

The landscape of violence is configured similarly in Canada; data compiled by the Canadian Network for Research on Terrorism, Security and Society shows that 59 per cent of so-called lone wolf attacks in the last 15 years were motivated by white supremacist ideology.

However, racial terror is not the exclusive province of non-state, "lone-wolf" perpetrators -- dismissable as individual "extremists" -- but pervades the structures of the state itself.

As social psychologist Zoe Samudzi pointed out in her piece on the Charleston shootings, "Beyond many people's failure to admit [the] act was one of terrorist violence [...], there is a failure to recognize that his actions are consistent with the violence and racism that has characterized America since its creation."

Indeed, 135 Black Americans were killed by police in the first five months of 2015: more than five times the number of people (26) killed by "Muslim extremists" since 9/11.

In Canada, the history and present of anti-Black racism is obscured by professions of our nation's superior commitment to multicultural tolerance.

"Claims to Canadian specificity and difference from American contexts are primary ways in which Canadians deny the prevalence of anti-Black racism," activist Zainab Amadahy and Professor Bonita Lawrence observe. The history of Black enslavement in Canada; the exclusion of Black and other "non-preferred race" immigrants in Canada's pre-World War II immigration policy; and multifarious contemporary forms of institutional and interpersonal racism, including practices of racial profiling by police, disproportionate incarceration, and employment discrimination -- all disappear in the popular, smug representation of "Canada as an exceptional site of liberal inclusion," as Professor Scott Morgensen puts it.

The loud and frequent denunciations of "jihadi" violence by Canadian political leaders bolster the racializing myth of a "clash of civilizations," while their silence on white supremacy disavows the racial violences at the heart of our own society.

Even as we are compelled to identify with the victims of Muslim "terrorism" -- "je suis Charlie!" -- the victims of racial terror are rendered unidentifiable by the Canadian state: unnamed casualties of an unnameable violence.

Je suis Charlie...mais je ne suis pas Charleston.

 

Azeezah Kanji is a Master of Law candidate at the School of Oriental and African Studies (University of London).

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