Jan Wong: the appeal of racist Rob
Rob Ford’s habit of hurling N-bombs—and every other racist invective—hasn’t cost him the minority vote. It might even explain his lingering popularity
It’s hard to find an ethnic group Mayor Rob Ford hasn’t denigrated. Let’s recap. So far, the slurs have included, but are not limited to, “fucking kike,” “nigger,” “fucking wop,” “dago,” “Paki,” “Gino-boy,” and, my personal favourite, “Oriental people.” He apes the accents of “fucking minorities” (his term), most famously Jamaican patois. His wife, Renata, is a “Polack.” Oh, wait—that was the word Rob’s brother, councillor (and now fill-in mayoral candidate) Doug Ford, used to describe his sister-in-law.
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Why do minorities in Toronto support our racist mayor? In the last election, 80 per cent of Ford support came from the inner suburbs, areas that have the highest concentration in the city of visible minorities. Ford’s staunchest support comes from Ward 2, Etobicoke North—the Ford family stronghold—where he’s now running to resume his pre-2010 role as councillor. The area includes Rexdale, a Somali neighbourhood.
Can Toronto’s vaunted multicultural harmony be only skin deep? We are known around the world for mixing and matching our ethnic cuisines, our music and our marriages. Perhaps Rob Ford’s racism is some kind of backlash against blending. Is he popular because he is regarded as a refreshing, politically incorrect tell-it-like-it-is voice? As an Asian in this city, I sometimes hear disparaging comments made against, say, Jews or blacks, uttered in the placid assumption that I must share the same racist attitudes. Maybe he resonates with minorities who are themselves racist and tolerate being dumped on as long as other minorities get trashed too.
Andray Domise, a political newcomer who is running for city council in Etobicoke North against Ford, confronted the mayor at the annual Canada Day Ribfest down at Centennial Park this past summer. Domise asked the mayor to explain his use of the epithet “niggers.” Ford shrugged and answered: “It’s complicated.” Then walked away.
Domise, the 33-year-old son of Jamaican immigrants, says he felt sick when a crowd of young black Ford supporters cracked jokes and cheered for the mayor. He later blogged: “I watched the faces of these young people light up. I watched their sheer glee at being in the presence of the man who had made their reputations more tarnished, their futures more unstable and their lives more dangerous… [Ford has] co-opted our culture, put money from his own pocket into the hands of drug dealers, called your sons ‘thugs,’ called the rest of us ‘niggers.’”
A few days later, Domise met me for lunch. He is 6 foot 3, clean cut and GQ-model handsome. He arrived nattily dressed and wearing brogues. He’s idealistic, with experience volunteering for the Liberals. He was born in Rexdale and raised there by his mom; Domise does not have a relationship with his biological father. He put himself through the University of Windsor, working during the day at Best Buy and at night as a club bouncer, and got his degree in political science. The day before our lunch, he quit his downtown job as a financial consultant with Sun Life to devote himself to the council race.
Domise knows a lot of Ford fans. His own grandmother, who turns 70 this year, was, until recently, a fervent supporter. He says there are three reasons why Ford appeals to so many blacks in Toronto.
The first reason is that he showily takes care of his individual constituents. Ford is a master of retail politicking, and Domise has seen this in action. “He takes the time to come to community events, show up at our homes, and be nice and courteous.” One black youth at Ribfest told Domise that he supports Ford “because he fights for the people.” In other words, the mayor is perceived as being the go-to guy for help. In a drunken stupor, in March, Ford summed up the contradiction of his leadership perfectly: “I’m the mayor of Toronto. Nobody sticks up for people like I do, whatever the race. I’m the most racist guy around.”
The second and more complicated reason has something to do with empathy: Domise says his grandmother, like many Toronto blacks, views the mayor as a kindred soul, an underdog who has triumphed over the elites. He’s drug-addled, overweight and uneducated—yet he’s the mayor. In this against-all-odds success story, Ford is the anti-hero. He says things that the disenfranchised wish they could say. “A lot of us see ourselves in Rob Ford,” says Domise. “He’s vilified, chased after by the media for his drug habits, attacked for his personal life.”
To explain the third reason, Domise evokes the saying, the enemy of my enemy is my friend. African-Canadians see the mayor as a political Robin Hood, an “upraised middle finger” to the entrenched downtown power structure. Ford positions himself against the (largely white) Toronto establishment, even while dropping N-bombs. He hired Eugene Jones, an African-American from Detroit, at $250,000 a year to run Toronto Community Housing, and when Jones was forced out last spring, following an ombudsman’s report citing mismanagement, the mayor played the race card. A furious Ford warned that subsidized housing projects might explode in violence to protest the firing of a black man. Domise’s translation: “You got to let me control these kids—I’m protecting the black community’s [interests] and simultaneously protecting the white community from the blacks.”
Domise decided to run in the Ford stronghold because, as he puts it, he believed someone needed to step up to challenge Ford’s behaviour. To bring his grandmother around, Domise spent an hour spelling out Rob Ford’s voting record—opposing community funding and badmouthing neighbourhood outreach as “hug-a-thug” programs while hugging actual thugs. But he isn’t sure how he’s going to convert enough voters to win. “I can’t have an in-depth conversation with every individual,” he says wearily.
Meanwhile, Rob Ford, now fluent in rehab-speak, insists his racist remarks were his “chronicle illness” talking. In the mayor’s first post-rehab interview, Dwight Drummond, a black anchor at CBC News Toronto, pressed him gently: “If those things aren’t in your heart, why are they coming out of your mouth with such frequency?” Ford replied, “When you have this disease…you say things that aren’t you.” But that’s nonsense: alcohol and drugs aren’t aliens who hijack your brain. They lessen inhibitions and eliminate social filters that restrain you from blurting out your innermost thoughts, unleashing the true you.
Ford’s two months in rehab showed us that the city—and city council—can dysfunction just fine without him. For me, it’s not complicated: Ford is a dangerous anachronism, the worst person to be our city’s mayor.