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politics

Rob Ford’s Diversity Distraction

Mayor Rob Ford styles himself as a champion of diversity. So why doesn't he use his political power to that effect?

A version of this post originally appeared on The Ethnic Aisle, a blog that deals with issues of multiculturalism as they relate to the GTA.

Mayor Rob Ford in his football jacket at a Maple Leafs practice in Trinity Bellwoods Park, in December 2010.

Since 2006, it’s been City of Toronto policy that all advertised civic appointments—both paid jobs and hundreds of volunteer opportunities—make a direct appeal for applications from “women, youth, First Nations, people with disabilities and racialized communities.” In late September, a damning report by the City’s ombudsman, Fiona Crean (who is, in fact, a woman), revealed that Mayor Rob Ford’s staff tried to delete a line about that diversity policy from recruitment ads during a round of appointments in spring 2011.

The revelation of Mayor Ford’s interference was another troubling window into his administration’s dismissive approach to inclusion and diversity. It also shed more light on Ford’s bizarre political posturing: even as he trumpets his private commitment to charity for marginalized people, the mayor reassures his base that public, systemic change is out of the question.

Ford’s response to Crean’s report was a standard denial and dismissal. “That’s a ridiculous question,” he said when asked, by a reporter, if he was against diversity. In the face of such a serious accusation, it would have been easy to drag out Toronto’s well-worn “Diversity, Our Strength” motto to placate concerned residents. The mayor’s refusal even to pay lip service to the idea was a silent statement that those who believe in the motto and its accompanying policies are not worth his attention.

“If that accusation was made about any of us, I’d think we would want to stand up and either deny it or, if we really feel that way, explain why we do,” said Councillor Josh Matlow (Ward 22, St. Paul’s). He reflected that the mayor “definitely presents himself as someone who cares about diversity.”

Matlow’s observation is accurate, but incomplete. Rob Ford is at once a self-styled patron saint of diversity and the lone vote on council against community grants for poor, racialized, and immigrant communities. He embraces football as a positive pastime for black boys even as he decries targeted anti-gang programs as “hug-a-thug” pandering.

Toronto’s diverse electors don’t necessarily cast ballots based on a candidate’s pronouncements on race, but Ford has shown he’s not afraid to appeal to them on that basis. During a 2010 mayoral debate at the Jamaican Canadian Association, Ford informed a gathering of mostly black attendees that “nobody, but nobody, in politics” had done more for black people than him. That the audience remained silent instead of laughing (or jeering) him off the stage suggests that many racialized Torontonians have gotten used to being targets of the gratuitous rhetoric of charity.

People who note the inconsistency between Ford’s words and deeds do themselves no favours by calling him out as a bigot or a racist, because that isn’t the point. The real problem is that a man who takes such pride in his private, individual efforts to support racialized people seems ashamed to devote the force of his powerful public office to the very same goal.

Of course, there is shrewd logic in remaining silent: Ford needs only to imply that he disapproves of diversity initiatives to satisfy voters who sympathize with that view. Conscious that parts of the electorate don’t care about (or are outright opposed to) ethnic diversity, the mayor makes pains to occasionally wink and nod in their direction. Ford lashes out against measures that could actually achieve systemic change in racialized communities because they offend his base; his charitable football foundation is much more acceptable, if far less effective.

Consider a powerful image from the mayor’s ongoing football-foundation controversy: that of Rob Ford leaving a practice surrounded by his team of mostly black football players from Don Bosco Catholic Secondary School. The team is intentionally guarding Ford from a throng of reporters trying to ask him about using city resources to support his teams. He makes it to his vehicle without answering a single question, before driving away in the People’s Escalade with a wave and a smile.

This is the true function of Rob Ford’s racial diversity messaging: it is a human shield—consisting of a few grateful, dark-skinned teenagers—that serves to deflect criticism and scrutiny of his reckless, regressive social policy.

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