Race and class. It’s an interesting mix. Years ago while working at a job with a predominantly White staff, one of them who was wrestling with her own feelings about the Black/White issue proffered that the misunderstanding and mistrust between these two Canadian communities could be attributed not so much to race as it could be to class distinctions. She suggested that fear and mistrust between the two communities were related to the fact that Black people generally belong to a culture dictated by their low incomes which the White, generally middle-class, Toronto populace cannot relate to. She did not make the connection between Black poverty and systemic racism – as if Black people are just naturally inclined to poverty.
In trying to find the root cause of a Black community in crisis, everyone is looking for explanations. Or looking for someone to blame. It’s race hate, some say. Others are convinced it’s the school system along with its recent ‘zero tolerance’ policy. It’s the parents. It’s the police and their disrespectful and aggressive treatment of youth. It’s because Black youth are not living a godly life. It’s the failure of middle-class Black people to reach out and support or give a helping hand to those still languishing in the despair of poverty.
Last week, on a radio call-in program, a caller who identified herself as Black, voiced objection to a high profile pastor’s reference to the problems in “our community”. The caller went to great lengths to distance herself, and her sons, from the criminal and violent actions of youth in low-income areas. “They are not my community,” she said with restrained anger.
The caller stated further that she and her husband raised two sons, one still a teen, the other in his 20s, who have no inclination to participate in the gang lifestyle. When questioned about what she was doing for the Black community she said she was doing her part by supporting a recently arrived Jamaican family trying to adjust to life in Canada.
Anyone who lived in the Caribbean during the 20th Century knows the insistent role of class status there. While arguably less rigid than the British colonial social system upon which it modeled itself — and progressively less so as the century wound down — there were clear distinctions of class. Those distinctions closely paralleled colour discrimination. In fact, there was clear distancing between the various socioeconomic strata in Caribbean society. Those who pulled themselves out of the slave class were anxious to identify with symbols of success. That anxiety to look away from remnants of life in the underclass gave ambition to many and those who didn’t have a gift for making money to buy their way into the upper strata of society saw education — as we do today —as the gateway out of the slums. Once removed, they refused to look back. Consequently, they left behind those who found neither financial nor educational gain. And so it continues.
Here in Canada, Toronto in particular, similar to the culture of (sometimes) subtle, understated racism, distinctions between social and economic classes tend also to be less obvious. But they exist nonetheless. Hence that voice on the radio show, no doubt representative of the many others nodding in agreement that what is happening in low-income housing project neighbourhoods is not their problem, but that of the denizens of those locales.
It raises the question: Am I my brother’s keeper? Many in the Black middle-class do not feel connected to what is making the news these days regarding gang violence, but does it absolve them of responsibility to contribute to solutions in this crisis?
As with many demanding issues in life that are not of one’s making, it is still left to us to deal with them. Assigning blame is useful for knowing the cause or source of the problem, but that is never in and of itself a solution. The problem of Black youth violence, their crippled self-image and the crushing despair that leads them to give life — theirs and ours — so little value is everyone’s problem.