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Remembering Anti-Racism

Can identity politics make a comeback?


BY Raghu Krishnan
Photography by Andrew Berg

Photo by Andrew Berg

A few months before my 20th birthday in 1987, I scrawled "No Sandinista ever called me Paki" on the back of a Viva Nicaragua Libre T-shirt and wore it proudly around the University of Toronto campus. I was inspired by photos of black Vietnam War protestors who, echoing Muhammad Ali, carried "No Viet Cong ever called us nigger" banners.

The T-shirt resonated more then than it would now. Vietnam was still on people's minds and the Nicaraguan Revolution was still resisting U.S.-backed attempts to bleed it dry. Throughout the 1980s, millions of Canadians and Americans participated in campaigns of solidarity with revolutionary Nicaragua and resistance movements in El Salvador and Guatemala. And, although no one seemed to want to talk about it, what I call the "Paki-bashing Toronto" of the mid-to-late 1970s was still a relatively fresh memory. This was especially true for those of South Asian origin who had grown up in that atmosphere of constant taunts and occasional violence.

The memory of racism had contributed to my political radicalization in high school, and was certainly with me when I hit the university campus in 1985, but racism didn't seem to be a factor in my present or future. I felt a quiet confidence that the difficult years of the seventies were behind me.

I was not alone in this. By the mid-1980s, a new caste of upwardly mobile and mostly Canadian-raised non-whites had emerged and was making its presence felt. I had been removed from this milieu during my teenage years and was only drawn to it during my initial adjustment to university life. By the time I was scrawling slogans on T-shirts, I was as frustrated with this crowd's social and political conservatism as I was with anything else. School, career and the pursuit of a mate "suitable" to family and "community" were definitely not my main priorities.

Though it never went beyond the back of my T-shirt, the Sandinista slogan raised a few eyebrows and gave me the feeling of being out and proud that was vital to my own coming of age. It also put me on the radical edge of the activist left. I had sought out this crowd and immediately shared in its activities and debates: in anti-apartheid and pro-choice protests, on the picket line with postal workers, against low-level nato testing over Innu lands, and in solidarity with the first Palestinian intifada and the revolutions in Central America.

It was an exhilarating and eye-opening introduction to radical politics. It was difficult, however, to escape the despondency that characterized left circles after the historic defeat in the 1988 Free Trade election. Campus anti-racism and the politics of identity provided relief from this suffocating atmosphere.

In 1989, I helped found the United Coalition Against Racism (UCAR) at the University of Toronto. We launched a "Campaign for an Anti-Racist U of T" with demands around curriculum, hiring, admissions, office and meeting space, and a racial-harassment grievance procedure. UCAR lasted more than two years, and stood out because of the intensity of its activities, its emphasis on non-white leadership, and the range of forces involved. The coalition included feminists from the Women's Centre, pan-Africanists from the African and Caribbean Students Association, and mostly white representatives from the NDP, Communist Party, and small far-left groups.

Around the same time, Desh Pardesh˜the South Asian diasporic festival of culture and politics˜came onto the scene. Desh was a product of the wave of gay and lesbian activism and the range of left projects and activities the city had seen in the 1970s and 1980s. It was premised on the existence of very real tensions within the "South Asian community" and a refusal to hush them up in the name of some greater community good. At its height in the early 1990s, Desh represented an outward-looking and subversive brand of identity politics rooted in local realities.

Later, in 1993, I was a founding member of the Toronto Coalition Against Racism (TCAR), which was formed following the near-fatal skinhead attack on Sivarajah Vinasithamby, a Sri Lankan Tamil refugee and restaurant worker.TCAR saw the Tamil response as an example of the kind of mobilization that was possible when non-whites themselves took the lead and built alliances.

The strategies of all three groups, however, presupposed two things. First, that "marginalized groups"˜women, non-whites, gays and lesbians˜had collective identities flowing from a relatively uniform set of experiences and interests. Second, that a strong and dynamic left would be able to incorporate these groups and their aspirations, while continuing to resist big business and the state. Only in hindsight does it become clear that, on both counts, we were badly overtaken by events around us.

The momentum around UCAR was eventually channelled into the university bureaucracy. The U of T administration wanted peace around "equity issues"˜the better to pursue a new agenda of tuition hikes, private fundraising and large-scale corporate involvement on the campus. For its part, TCAR was unable to unite Tamils, other non-whites, anti-fascist youth and the organized left. The coalition fizzled within a couple of years, following unsuccessful attempts to mobilize opposition to the restrictive immigration policies of the new Liberal government. And when Desh Pardesh finally disbanded in late 2000, it had long been incapable of sustaining its original vision. Its de facto succcessor, the slick internet operation MyBindi.com, has succeeded by catering to the middle-class conformism that asserted itself over the organized South Asian community.

Why did things unfold this way? For one thing, during those decisive years of the early 1990s, the left was in profound crisis. This was symbolized most dramatically on the world stage by the swift and brutal U.S.-led war on Iraq in early 1991, followed by the collapse of the U.S.S.R. into poverty and conflict.

At the same time, the non-white population of Canada was growing rapidly, especially in Toronto and Vancouver, and undergoing a complex process of fragmentation and stratification. There was the growing army of new and highly educated non-white immigrants˜some very upwardly mobile, others unable to progress in their field of choice. There were also numerous young, Canadian-raised, middle-class non-whites who had grown up within conservative and largely self-contained ethnic communities in the suburbs. Many had no experience of 1970s-style racism. Finally, there was a growing underclass of non-whites stuck on the bottom of an increasingly unequal society, in perpetual conflict with government social-service agencies and the police. This made it extremely difficult to speak of "people of colour" as a single group, let alone for small groups of activists to win them to a radical left project.

Sure, the political situation in the country at the time was quite fluid. Recall the collapse of Meech Lake, the tanking of the Mulroney Tories, the siege at Oka and the NDP victory in Ontario. Openings existed, but there was no credible, activist force to step in. And there was no significant rise in actual struggles or movements on the ground˜neither from the "marginalized groups" invoked by identity politics, nor in the traditional areas of left activity (trade unions, international solidarity, campus activism), nor in the places where these intersect. This problem was compounded by the demobilization that followed the initial excitement surrounding both the NDP victory in Ontario in 1990 and the defeat of the federal Tories in 1993. The possibility of a successful fusion of the activist crowd and the "old left"˜each hemorrhaging in its own way˜was growing dimmer.

In Toronto, the climactic and revealing moment was the so-called Yonge Street riots of early May 1992. The "riots" and the subsequent aggressive police response followed a major protest at the U.S. consulate, a peaceful march up Yonge Street and a sit-in at the intersection of Bloor and Yonge. The demonstrations were organized following the police shooting of a young black man˜the eighth in four years, and the fourth fatal one˜just days after the acquittal of the police involved in the beating of Rodney King. The courts had also recently acquitted police who were implicated in the 1988 shooting death of black teenager Michael Wade Lawson in the Toronto suburb of Mississauga.

The protests were quite spectacular and prompted a considerable amount of soul-searching in the city and beyond. But no broad anti-racist initiative emerged. The impact was absorbed by the well-meaning but inconsequential efforts of the rightward-moving and doomed provincial NDP government and the public relations efforts of the Toronto police force.

It's unfortunate that the anti-racist movement of this period˜and the reasons for its failure˜is still so poorly understood. The idea that the campuses had been overrun by hordes of identity-Nazis was always a caricature designed to discredit the radical left in one of its few remaining sites of activity. Initially, it was easy to dismiss this media campaign for the fraud it was. But later, in a context of defeat and isolation, the petty tendencies of activist anti-racism and identity politics gained ascendancy and this misrepresentation began to ring true to many, even inside activist circles.

I myself fell afoul of one of the micro-tyrannies that sprang up˜at the progressive community-radio station ckln during its identity-politics-gone-berserk phase. A show I was hosting was unceremoniously cut from the schedule. One member of the triumvirate that ran the place felt I "didn't sound South Asian"; a second disliked what I had to say about Quebec politics leading up to the second referendum.

This factionalism smoothed the way out of radical politics for exhausted activists, and for those whose interest had been mostly academic or social. It was a good time to jump ship; by the mid-1990s, Toronto had found a privileged place in the new order, opening up opportunities for educated young people seeking refuge from the defeats of identity politics and the left. While only a handful of people from my generation of radicals actively embraced "globalization," many were able to find less confrontational niches in the media, law, academia and bureaucracies of one sort or another. Most abandoned activist politics and withdrew into their work and personal lives. For my own part, I found an outlet for radical politics in Mexico and France, where I was also sheltered from the growing lassitude and depoliticization I encountered among many former activists on return visits to the city.

Since my return to Canada in 1999, however, neoliberalism has been undermined by the radicalization of a new generation of young people, the partial bursting of the "new economy" speculative bubble, the steady stream of corporate scandals, the attack on the World Trade Center and the American response˜which have revealed the hollowness of the neoliberal promise of a prosperous, borderless and conflict-free world.

The dispensation born in the 1990s has been unable to solve any of the basic problems of earlier decades, and has created a range of new ones. Economic and social inequality has grown and become more "racialized" in Toronto and other cities˜a trend likely to grow in coming years. Similarly, as the U.S. administration and the Canadian right demand further restrictions on the rights of immigrants, refugees and the country's non-white citizens, tensions are likely to escalate.

However strong the need, it will not be easy to fashion an anti-racist response. The defeats of the past decade˜and the related divisions˜will continue to hamper our efforts for some time, and too much has changed for us merely to pursue the strategies of the past. Growing opposition to free trade, privatization, war, militarization and attacks on civil liberties may provide opportunities to overcome these divisions. Those of us involved in previous waves of organizing have an important contribution to make, but we also have a great deal of listening and learning to do.

Thanks to Robert Gill, Vanita Goela, Kyo Maclear, Terry Murphy, Cynthia Pay, Matthew Shields, B. Skanthakumar and Aparna Sundar for their comments.

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