Separatist Trends in the United States and Canada

by John E. Farley

In recent weeks, events in the headlines have demonstrated the growth of separatist influences in recent years in the thinking of both African Americans and French Canadians. In the United States, the Million Man March, to which only African American men were invited, is now estimated by sophisticated optical scanning methods to have drawn over 800,000 people - which makes it the largest demonstration in the history of the nation. Despite controversy over march organizer Minister Louis Farrakhan's past comments about Jews and other groups, there is no question that his message of self-help and independent thought and action among African Americans has struck a powerful chord. The idea that "We can't count on white people to help us or even give us a fair chance, so we've got to do it ourselves" has an unmistakable appeal in todays racial atmosphere. In Canada, meanwhile, the voters of Quebec came within one percentage point of voting to leave Canada. Among Quebecois of French ancestry, a resounding 60 percent voted for independence.

The causes of the growing influence of separatist thinking among African Americans and French Canadians are more similar than has generally been recognized by political or media commentators. Indeed, very few have made the connection at all, and those few that have done so have generally shown a lack of understanding of the underlying causes. Newt Gingrich, for example, weighed in with the notion that the United States should pass legislation establishing English as its official language in order to head off the possibility of separatism among non-English speakers in the United States. Similarly, columnist William Pfaff opines that multiculturalism is undoing both the United States and anglophone Canada, by destroying the national identity and encouraging ethnic nationalist movements.

Two realities show that explanations like those offered by Gingrich and Pfaff are simplistic and wrong. The first reality is illustrated by an award-winning book by sociologist James McKee of Michigan State University. In his book, Sociology and the Race Problem: The Failure of a Perspective, McKee demonstrates that it is a fallacy to believe, as many sociologists once did, that ethnic identity and ethnic conflict are anachronisms of an earlier era that will fade away when societies modernize and industrialize. That hasn't happened anywhere. No matter how much effort is made to get people in modern, diverse societies to think of their common nationhood or their common humanity, old loyalties and identities don't go away. Not in the United States, not in Canada, not anywhere. Sociological studies have shown that this is especially true when, as with both African Americans and French Canadians, ethnic minority groups were forced to submit the rule of the society in which they live rather than choosing to do so voluntarily, as do immigrant groups. Thus, the reality is that for all his legislative power, Newt Gingrich cannot legislate away the forces of multiculturalism or ethnic consciousness in the United States. All this does not, however, necessarily mean that we are automatically condemned to a future of conflicting ethnic nationalisms that will inevitably rip our countries apart. That's where the second reality comes in.

The second reality is that ethnic nationalism and separatism grow when ethnic groups come to the conclusion that the larger society is not responding to their collective concerns. And that's precisely what's going on today in both the United States and Canada. In the United States, a startling growth in separatist thinking among African Americans has been documented by the University of Chicago's Black Politics Project. Researcher Michael Dawson reports a striking increase in support among African Americans for a black political party from around 25 percent in the mid-1980s to about 50 percent today - even higher than a previous peak attained during the surge of black nationalism in the late 1960s. And look at what has happened in American race relations over the past decade.

On the one hand, indicators of disadvantage such as rates of poverty, unemployment, and infant mortality among African Americans have remained two to three times those of whites, and there are more black men in prison than in college. No matter how strongly black people have spoken out on the unfairness of all this, poll after poll has shown that the majority of whites believe that blacks have the same opportunity in American society as do whites. On the other hand, America is today in the midst of a backlash against even the small steps that have been taken to reduce the disadvantages faced by African Americans and other minorities. Affirmative action is under attack, and Congress stands on the brink of a budget that would raise taxes and cut services for most Americans with incomes below the median - which includes a large majority of the African American population. It does not strike me as a great wonder, in such a situation, that a growing number of African Americans would say to white people, "We don't need you any more. We're going to be ourselves and do it our own way now."

What many Americans do not realize is that there are striking similarities in the anglophone Canadian response to the concerns and aspirations of French Canadians. (In fact, when it comes to Canada, most Americans don't realize much of anything, despite the fact that we share the longest unpatrolled border in the world, and the fact that Canada is America's largest trading partner.) Although French Canadians typically do not enjoy the same level of economic comfort as do anglophone Canadians, their economic disadvantages are less severe than those of African Americans. However, from a political and cultural standpoint, they have felt increasingly ignored and rejected since they last voted on independence fifteen years ago.

In 1982, Quebec refused to sign a new Constitution act that denied Quebec a traditional constitutional veto that it had enjoyed in the past. This came just two years after Quebec voters had rejected independence by a margin of 60-40 in a 1980 referendum. Even then, most Quebecois wanted to be recognized by the rest of Canada as the culturally, linguistically, and religiously distinct society that they have always been. However, they believed that such an objective could best be obtained by working toward a more autonomous arrangement within the umbrella of the Canadian confederation. The majority of francophone Quebecois no longer feel that way. One reason can be found in the 1982 Constitution. Other reasons lie in the failed Meech Lake and Charlottetown accords of 1990 and 1992. These accords, negotiated between federal officials and Quebec's Provincial government, would have 1) assured Quebec of veto power over federal actions substantially affecting French language and culture and 2) officially recognized Quebec as a "distinct society." The Meech Lake and Charlottetown accords, however, failed due to rejection by the anglophone Provincial parliaments that had to ratify them, because anglophone Canadians for the most part rejected the notion of any special status for Quebec. Unable to negotiate an agreement that gave them the recognition and protection they sought, the majority of French Canadians felt they had no alternative but to support independence. Once again, failure by the group holding power to respond to repeated expressions of concern by the minority group led the French Canadians to say to anglophone Canadians, "We don't need you any more. We're going to be ourselves and do it our own way now."

My sense is that those of good will among anglophone Canadians and white Americans have been shocked and hurt by the "We don't need you any more" message they have heard recently. My hope is that this hurt will lead to some much- needed introspection. In these days of growing divisions, there is only one hope for a reversal of the centrifugal trends at work in diverse societies like the United States and Canada. The majority group must recognize that, if it values the preservation of its society, it can no longer pick and choose whether and when to respond to the deep and repeatedly stated concerns of national minorities. No longer can they turn their ears when African Americans or French Canadians insist on being heard and on having a real say in the decisions that affect their own lives. If the majority group turns its ears one too many times, it won't be just 50 percent of Quebec voters who vote for independence or 50 percent of African Americans who want a separate black political party. The time is now for anglophone Canadians and white Americans to listen and respond - and there may not be much time left.

John E. Farley is Professor of Sociology at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville. He is the author of Majority-Minority Relations, a college textbook now in its third edition.

A slightly revised version of this article appeared as a Commentary in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in November, 1995.

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