Desmond Cole, right, with Ford supporter William. Photo by Jonathan Goldsbie
I set out for Ford Fest on July 25, the latest in a series of public picnics held by Mayor Rob Ford, with a mission: to engage black Ford supporters, and only them, in conversation about our mayor's consistent expressions of anti-black racism.
Many of the hundreds gathered at Thomson Memorial Park in Scarborough were people of African and Caribbean descent.
But of the 30 or so I spoke with, very few were willing (or able) to problematize Ford's use of the word "nigger," his description of blacks as "fucking minorities" or his claim that no one has helped black people more than him.
A middle-aged woman named Sheila, who attended with her husband, Roy, bristles at my questions.
"He's not racist," she said definitively. "The people don't like him, so they would say anything about him."
I asked if those who reported Ford's language had simply made it up. "Yes, they would do that," Sheila quickly responded.
A young man named Mark and his friend Steve were similarly eager to explain away Ford's bigotry.
Said Mark, "I use the same words and I'm black, so how am I going to knock him for it?"
When I asked if white people have licence to call blacks "nigger," he said, "It depends on what context they use it in."
"If there's anger behind it, then there's a problem," Steve added. Does he believe Ford's "fucking minorities" comment betrayed anger? "That's his opinion," he said. "And technically speaking, that's what we're considered as: minorities."
Mark added, "Maybe he meant minorities in an economic sense. I'm sure everybody else in politics is using even more derogatory words. It's just not publicized."
Kevin, who came across the city from Etobicoke with his wife and young children, said he's supported Ford since his early days on city council. His son clung to his leg and listened as I asked about Ford's discriminatory remarks.
"I'm a teacher, and I've heard a lot of other teachers use the N-word at school," he offered. "I say it's more ignorance... a lack of knowledge. Rob Ford probably doesn't know the meaning of the word. People use it as a friendly term."
Kevin added that the media are out to get Ford "because he opposes gay marriage," a stance the teacher said he appreciates.
The unwillingness among Ford's black supporters to confront his racism seems extremely nuanced and strategic. As black Canadians, they've experienced racism first-hand and know how badly it stings. When these folks deny, obscure or ignore Ford's racism, they're delivering a grim message: all politicians look down on black people, but at least Ford will occasionally grace them with the privilege of his presence.
Everyone who spoke with me suggested that our politicians and the system they serve are generally corrupt and specifically racist or indifferent toward black people.
Such low expectations of public service make Ford a hero for offering his black supporters a hamburger and a little attention. A woman who gave her name as Flavour told me passionately, "I've been living in Scarborough for many years, and this is the only mayor I've ever gotten to shake hands with."
This sort of desperation and insecurity would be comic if it weren't so consistent among the blacks I interviewed.
Ford may not be perfect (I heard this at least a dozen times), he may even be racist sometimes, but he performs token positive gestures toward blacks that others won't, and that's good enough for many.
Those I spoke with sounded resigned to some racism in politics. For them, Ford's divisive brand represents an awkward but acceptable compromise. Despite the depth of disillusionment among many black people about our status in this city and country, it is naïve to assume that we are universally intolerant of anti-black racism.
Black Torontonians are, we cannot forget, facing a disproportionately grim set of social and economic circumstances: as children we're more likely to be kicked out or suspended from school; as adolescents we're the targets for non-investigative stops by police; as adults we're less likely to find good jobs. Many blacks identify with Ford as victim, as someone whose behaviour is over-scrutinized, and they jump on his bandwagon.
The consequences of black disillusionment played themselves out in a powerful way at Ford Fest. While I conducted interviews, a group of LGBTQ protesters arrived at the picnic. A large and angry throng of Ford supporters, including many black people, taunted the queer protesters and chanted at them to "go home."
This is civic engagement Ford-style, and the mayor has employed the same rallying cry against black people in different circumstances. Only two years ago, he used a shooting in Scarborough to propose his race-baiting suggestion that the city deport people convicted of gun crimes. This is how Ford repays the unwavering loyalty of his black supporters, but many of them are too caught up in his game of patronage to fight back.
I did meet a couple of dissenters. A man named Andrew said he was loyal to Ford and repeated the opinion that his bigotry has been taken out of context. But when I asked black people who support Ford should still condemn his language, he gave a reply I hadn't heard all evening.
"Definitely [they] should. Because there is a racial boundary. We came from very far, and some wounds never heal. So because of who he is, it's not right even for him to say it, even though I support him."
A woman named Josine spoke with me just after her daughter had her photo taken with Rob's brother Doug, who'd been working the crowd for hours.
Her response to the Ford brothers' repeated comments that no one has helped black people more than the mayor? Josine wrinkled her nose and said, "They haven't done anything for our community... but I don't know anything."