“#PeopleLikeNenshi”, “old stock Canadians”, and plausibly deniable racism

In 1963, George Wallace, Governor of Alabama and dark-horse Presidential candidate, made his position on one of the major political issues of the day crystal-clear, saying, “I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!”

You could get away with that kind of thing back then – equating integration with tyranny and explicitly embracing a violently racist policy.

These days, a politician who openly expressed this kind of view would be unable to command much mainstream support. Even Wallace was unable to ever expand his political base out of the American South. But racist politicians haven’t disappeared; they’ve just learned how to make plausibly-deniable racist statements.

The Harper Conservatives’ 2015 campaign has been a master-class in subtly coded racism. And though we who follow these stories closely may think their sneakily derogatory statements aren’t gaining traction, it’s easy to be in a bit of a social media bubble on this issue. If you’re reading this, you’re probably relatively young, and you’re probably living in a city, and you’re therefore probably not considered a likely Conservative voter. When Conservative candidates say these are-they-or-aren’t-they-being-racist kind of things, they’re not talking to you.

To take the most recent example, currently trending on Twitter: Earlier this week, Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi did an interview with the slimy Evan Solomon on the ongoing niqab furor. (ICYMI, here’s my post from last week on the issue.) Nenshi, in typically blunt fashion, didn’t hold back on the question of Conservative dog-whistle statements. On the question of the niqab, he said, “This is unbelievably dangerous stuff. It’s not fun anymore. And you know, I spoke with a group of – I spoke with a group of mayors and councillors from all over Alberta last week, and in my speech, with all these people from small-town Alberta, I stood up and I said this is disgusting and it’s time for us to say stop it. It’s time for us to say this is enough.”

He also spoke of the danger of trying to politicize the niqab, saying that the message that it sends to Muslim youth is that they will never be truly accepted as Canadians, at exactly the same time that they are being targeted by “deradicalization” campaigns that aim to convince them of the exact opposite. And speaking on the tenuous nature of multiculturalism, he even got kinda poetic:

“You know, I talk – I talk all the time about the core strength of our nation being the fact that we look after one another, that we try to share opportunity with everybody. But I also talk all the time about how incredibly fragile that is. It’s not because of something special in the water, or the fact that we are close to moose in this country, that suddenly we are nicer than other human beings. It’s because of the social norms that we’ve created, that that is what you do, that you look after one another. And for our – when our leaders start playing with those norms, it’s a very dangerous game.”

Overall, his position was thoughtful, coherent, nuanced, and, I thought, extremely reasonable.

I guess this is just one of those times that Jason Kenney and I will have to agree to disagree, though, because the Calgary Conservative MP and Minister of National Defence hit back at the mayor shortly after the interview was aired. Speaking to the Calgary Herald yesterday, Kenney had this to say:

“If anything’s dangerous, it would be legitimizing a medieval tribal custom that treats women as property rather than people. It seems to me that it’s the mayor and people like him who are politicizing it. I don’t think this should be an issue of contention.”

There’s a hell of a lot going on here. Most of the online furor has focussed on Kenney’s phrase, “people like him” – Nenshi himself responded quickly on Twitter saying he was just gonna assume Kenney meant “thoughtful people”, and the hashtag #PeopleLikeNenshi quickly gained a wide audience, with commentators riffing on the perceived racism of the statement. And it’s hard to argue that there aren’t some racist undertones to what Kenney said – not necessarily from anything he specifically uttered, but because of the context in which it was uttered.

First off, the statement comes right after Kenney didn’t exactly accuse Nenshi of viewing women as property and of being an adherent of “medieval tribal customs” – this despite the fact that Nenshi barely talked about the niqab itself, and despite the actual testimony of actual Muslim women who wear niqabs that they do so because they want to and not because they’re forced to. It came right after Kenney referred to – and denigrated – Islam without mentioning it by name. By saying that he doesn’t think the niqab issue should be an issue of contention, Kenney implies that anybody who disagrees with the government’s position is obviously wrong, and further that they’re probably an adherent of a medieval tribal philosophy.

Then there’s the subtext. Nenshi is a brown guy, after all, and a Muslim. His opinion, and that of “people like him”, are considered irrelevant by Kenney, and by leaving the category of “people like him” undefined – while introducing it in a context of Islam-bashing – will naturally lead Kenney’s audience to recall Nenshi’s status as a brown Muslim.

But of course it’s all very deniable, and if you want, you can wade into the comments section of any news article reporting on the hashtag to see older white Conservatives (and/or paid CPC trolls) saying they don’t see what all the fuss is about and that Kenney’s meaning was obvious – he was just referring to people who support wearing the niqab. He didn’t mention Nenshi’s race or religion, did he? Therefore, what he said wasn’t racist.

Which, once you look for it, is a pattern that’s all over the Conservative campaign. There was the online uproar over Stephen Harper’s use of the phrase “old stock Canadians” during the Globe and Mail debate last month, a phrase that had WASP/pure laine written all over it. Conservative backers issued similar denials of the phrase’s hidden racist meaning as were deployed in Kenney’s case, but as the Tyee noted at the time, those claims didn’t really hold water:

Others still characterized reaction to the statement as overblown, particularly since “old stock” has been uttered in the House of Commons by (gasp) Liberal MPs. Harper’s awkward comment couldn’t possibly have racial undertones if Justin Trudeau once said something similar, the reasoning goes.

But here’s where that argument fails to consider context and intent. Mere seconds later, Harper claimed Mulcair and Trudeau would “throw open our borders” to “literally hundreds of thousands of people without any kind of security check or documentation.”[…]

The words, without context, may not suggest any wrongdoing to his supporters. But since the phrase immediately preceded his recitation of bogus refugee numbers that stoke fear of immigrants as terrorists, the comment certainly sounded like a dog whistle to some voters’ hateful and fearful premise.

The pattern, it seems, is to use an ambiguous phrase which could be interpreted as racist in a context of overblown rhetoric about the danger of terrorism, or about Canadian values, or some other racially charged topic. And it’s a pattern that Harper can’t seem to shake even when he’s trying to reach out to a marginalized ethnic group:

No one likes to be referred to as “those people.” It’s an alienating phrase used to single out a group as the other — not one of us, but one of them.

In Monday’s televised Munk Debate on foreign policy, that is exactly how Stephen Harper referred to the over 50,000 Inuit living in this country.

As an Inuk, it’s hard not to feel a little singled out when the prime minister refers to one of Canada’s founding peoples like this.

Harper also proclaimed that “the Inuit and the North has really arrived in our country.” Apparently we are not “old stock” Canadians in Harper’s eyes, but some kind of recent arrivals.

Again, Harper’s supporters say it was merely a poor choice of words, and that people are being too sensitive. This is a criticism the Prime Minister himself made in a radio interview in London, Ont., the other day. Speaking in response to the allegation from opposition leaders Thomas Mulcair and Justin Trudeau that the Conservatives’ revocation of the Canadian citizenship of convicted terrorists with dual citizenship created two classes of Canadians, Harper referred to the issue as “elite political correctness on steroids“:

“Of course there are tiers,” Harper said on Wednesday “and one tier is that the ordinary immigrant does not in any way identify with the kinds of persons that are out to destroy this country.”

The Conservative leader did not shut the door to the idea of revoking the citizenship of dual nationals who commit other types of crime.

“We can look at options in the future,” Harper said as he went on to defend the new provisions.

In other words: (a) Yes, some citizens are more Canadian, more equal, than others; and (b) to call that racist is just the PC Police being a bunch of party-poopers as per usual.

This wasn’t the first time Harper unleashed his fury on political correctness, and it’s no coincidence that he invokes the phrase. It’s a kind of inoculation against accusations of racism. Those who cry “Racist!” are merely being too sensitive; if anything, they’re being “reverse racists” (a totally non-existent thing but a category you often see invoked in the dreaded comment threads beneath articles that touch on racial issues). And to be clear, if you are well aware of the bullshit underlying this position and totally disagree with it, the Prime Minister isn’t talking to you.

He’s talking to the people who agree with him that most Muslims don’t share Canadian values, that they should be grateful that we let them come to this country, that it’s reasonable to view them with an abundance of suspicion.

Some of these people are on Twitter – but many of them aren’t. Many of them – the older and more rural ones especially – will remain unaware of the furious online backlash against Harper’s comments. They’ll hear his coded racist statements, and understand them on an intuitive level, and on a non-trivial number of them, these statements will work a kind of magic. While the Other Guys are too worried about being politically correct to even refer to fundamentalist jihadist terrorism by name, Stephen Harper is standing up for our safety and our values! It’s distressingly easy to imagine the type of people that appeals to.

And so while Mayor Nenshi says that in his opinion, the dog-whistle coded statements are missing their mark, that the people he talks to as he goes about the city are too decent and tolerant and accepting to be taken in by them, I’m worried that there might be just enough people living outside of our urban well-connected bubbles to whom these statements are appealing to push the HarperCons over the edge and back into government.

Running a campaign based on fear and loathing is a low and slimy and despicable thing to do. But it’s also not uncommon, for one simple reason: one of the easiest ways to appeal to people is through their prejudices. And the fact that we’re still talking about the niqab, in a campaign that could be focussed on anything from the environment to poverty to surveillance to democratic renewal, signifies the broad appeal that anti-Muslim prejudice holds, at least in many electorally important regions of Canada.

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