Special feature by Trevor Hewitt

 

Ethnic and Pluralism Studies Alumnus Wendell Adjetey presents a special lecture as part of the Harney Program’s 10th annual graduate research conference on January 27, 2017, at the Munk School of Global Affairs

 

Wendell Adjetey, an alumnus of the Ethnic and Pluralism Studies Collaborative Graduate Program, with an M.A. from our Department of Political Scinece, and now a doctoral candidate in African-American studies and history at Yale, presented a talk at this year’s Graduate Research Conference. His presentation “The Fire Next Door: The 1967 Detroit Uprising in the Canadian Imagination” was based on his current doctoral thesis research, and aimed to help shed light on the impact of U.S. race relations in Canada. Adjetey used the example of the 1967 Detroit “uprising” and the responses of both white and black Canadians. His thesis generally focuses on the overall theme of American-based racial violence to look at Canada’s own history with African-Canadians. Following his presentation, discussion and commentary was provided by U of T professors Akwasi Owusu-Bempah (Sociology) and Ian Radforth (History).

Contrasting the events in Detroit to the less racially diverse Windsor, Ont., Adjetey explained how the 1967 Detroit “uprising” exposed distinct differences between the two sister cities. “The ... uprising revealed that the propensity for and intensity of racial conflict is the greatest distinguishing feature of Canadian and U.S. society.” He went on to explain how different conditions in 1960s and 1970s America – namely distinguishable ghettos and higher proportions of black populations in cities – made civil disobedience by its African-American citizens much more likely than their African-Canadian counterparts. He says a lack of visible racial problems also gave Canadians an inflated sense of moral superiority in the aftermath of 1967. “U.S. race relations made Canadian society appear superior in comparison and perfectible in a way unfathomable to U.S. residents.”

But Adjetey was quick to point out that this sense of Canadian pride was misplaced. Central to the lack of a black uprising within Canada was the fact that it had no real distinguishable ghettos, with the exception of Africville in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Similarly, even its cities with the largest African-Canadian populations were small when compared to American cities like Detroit. Windsor, Ont., residents’ literal reaction to the fire itself also helped to contextualize Canadians’ attitude toward racial issues. “Residents ... casually watched infernos rage in Detroit as the National Guard battled it out with citizens, who had transformed into insurgents overnight. As the drama unfolded, Canadians positioned themselves along various sight lines to watch their neighbours destruction.”

Adjetey also described what he called the “paradox of progress”. The blatant images of social regression and unrest in America created and stoked the false perception of relative progress in Canada. Adjetey says that this gave white Canadians an inflated sense of morale authority, and thus superiority, over their U.S. counterparts. He also points out that it was Canada who had already perfected a “policy of cultural genocide” of its indigenous people prior to the 1967 Detroit “uprising” and, shortly after, had pro-apartheid bureaucrats visiting from South Africa to learn about these very policies. Regardless, he says that many were willing to overlook the racial inequality inherently existing within Canadian culture because it was not as pronounced or palpable as within America. The country could be seen as a beacon of hope as long as it didn’t have violent uprisings and lynchings like its southern neighbours. Adjetey says that when reporters spoke to African-Canadian residents of Windsor, Ont., many attributed the city’s lack of violence to its lack of ghettos. But others honestly felt that there was no real racial tension in the city. This can also, in part, be explained by its low population of black Canadians – just 2 per cent at the time. Detroit, by comparison, was over a third African-American at the time.

“Canada’s anemic black population was a direct result of a white supremacist nation-building policy to prevent black people from coalescing into a critical mass,” Adjetey says. Canada discouraged black immigration as they thought it would undo white racial harmony and potentially cause a repeat of Detroit. “By keeping the black population negligible, Canadian officials reduced significantly the likelihood of white backlash, which in turn allowed Canadian society to disavow the existence of a race problem. And when racial conflict reared its frightful head on Canadian soil, bystanders could place responsibility on the ‘true purveyor’ of racial strife – the United States.”

To illustrate the pervasive racism still present within Canada at the time, Adjetey used the example of the January 1969 protests at Sir George Williams University in Montreal. After a group of students complained that a biology professor was purposely giving inferior, in many cases failing, grades to his black students. While the school agreed to investigate, tensions reached a boiling point after weeks of stalling. A large group of protestors occupied the school’s computer lab for almost two weeks, before police stormed the building without warning. In the ensuing chaos, the building was set on fire. Adjetey says that the government used this event to expand its surveillance of groups and organizations they deemed potentially radical, run by either black or indigenous Canadians. “On one hand ... Canada expunged white supremacist measures from its immigration act in late 1960s and welcomed persons of African descent ... in unprecedented numbers, (on the other) Canadian authorities worked covertly to discredit black agitation and undermine black citizenship.”

Adjetey finished his talk by stressing that tension between the Canadian government and its indigenous people still represents a real crisis, and that adding that ignoring the problem is no solution. “Hopefully indigenous peoples and (Canadian) society in general will work towards mitigating these challenges, before our Detroit neighbors have an opportunity in the distant future to lament over the other fire next door.”

 

After his talk, the Harney program spoke with Adjetey on the rise of U.S. President Trump and how race relations have changed in America over the years, for better or worse.  He said that the state of race relations in America has evolved since the 1960s. “The biggest difference between ... now and 1967 is that the racial tension today is no longer a simple black-white divide,” says Adjetey. “U.S. citizens of Middle Eastern origin, but especially those of Muslim faith, as well as persons of Latin American descent, are feeling as if their respective communities are under siege by a president whose inflammatory and maligning campaign rhetoric is slowly materializing into policy.” An April 2016 Gallup poll found that U.S. worries about race relations are at an all-time high – up to 35 per cent from just 17 per cent in 2014.

According to Adjetey, the question then becomes whether or not these various ethno-racial groups are anxious enough about deteriorating race relations that they can create a genuine “inter-racial coalition”. But he says that’s much easier said than done. “This ... is extremely difficult to achieve in a racially stratified society such as the United States, where every group that is not African-American effectively enjoys greater upward mobility along the racial ladder,” he says. “Self-preservation, in fact, prevents many groups from forming meaningful alliances with African-Americans.”

When asked if he thought the U.S could ever see violent civil disobedience on similar levels to Detroit in 1967, he said he was unsure – but that it was certainly possible. “One cannot state with certainty whether U.S. society is above violent protests. We could potentially witness massive civil disobedience (or) disruptions, given the ubiquity and sheer scope of social media as a rallying point for activists. Large-scale coordinated actions could bring the state to a grinding halt.”

 

Wendell Nii Laryea Adjetey is a doctoral candidate in the Departments of History and African American Studies at Yale University, where he holds numerous awards and prizes, including the Falk Foundation, Felix G. Evangelist, and Douglass R. Bomeisler Fellowships. He is writing a dissertation on twentieth-century black activism and freedom linkages between Canada and the United States. Wendell is a Trudeau Scholar and a SSHRC Doctoral Fellow. He earned undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of Toronto.