The White North and the Rust Belt

Will Truman

Will Truman is the Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. He is also on Twitter.

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13 Responses

  1. Burt Likko says:

    It may be race, but in this instance “race” serves as “economic laboring class” more than anything else. It’s hard for me to believe that Canada has lacked for an economic laboring class throughout its development, both pre- and post-independence.

    To the extent that “race” means “race,” Canada has also not lacked for a more melanin-rich population, in no small part from slaves expatriating themselves and their families there during the United States’ Bad Old Days (and Canada’s past is hardly free from blemish in regards to this general subject, though I think their historical moral scorecard looks a lot better than ours).

    But really what we’re talking about here are “a significant number of people with relatively little education in urban areas willing to take factory jobs for significantly-less-than-premium wages” and come on, every nation has that.Report

    • Saul Degraw in reply to Burt Likko says:

      There is a theory, potentially share among the left and the right (or right-sympathizing libertarians), that America’s racial history and politics are some of the reasons we never had as good a welfare state as compared to other countries.

      I.e. Welfare States are easier to develop in homogenerous countries. This is not a full story though. Japan and South Korea are very homogeneous countries with paltry welfare states.

      It also goes to different places depending on the point of view for the person.Report

    • SilverWolf in reply to Burt Likko says:


      I understand your distinctions and as a Canadian I can see what you are referencing. If you take a look at our labour history, you can see that we often replaced Blacks and Hispanics for our own version of “undesirables”. This would be seen in the way the Irish and Catholics were treated in Toronto early on. The horrible treatment of Chinese immigrants working on the trans-Canada railway is another point and yet neither group is facing massive systemic racism today.

      That said, Will makes several points that I must agree with. I have told people before that we have never had a “distinct” group that we could point to and say “they’re takin’ our jobs!” We have the “advantage” that it is quite difficult for huge numbers of distinctly underprivileged people to flood our communities, especially people with obvious physical, cultural, and language differences. I believe that this has significantly contributed to our altruistic and inclusive nature. It is easy to hold high ideals when the “problems” are over there.

      The advantage of sharing only borders with a nation that looks, sounds and behaves much like ourselves and is not desperate to stream over the border to tax our infrastructure and systems is huge.Report

  2. PD Shaw says:

    I find the piece misleading:

    “If you look at a lot of cities, they all have lost massive number of manufacturing jobs. Detroit’s not that unusual in terms of numbers,” he told me over coffee. “In fact it’s retained more than some the other cities.”

    Is the important metric the number of manufacturing jobs retained? Or is it the number lost? Detroit’s situation is unique because (a) its size, (b) its dependence on manufacturing, and (c) the loss of manufacturing jobs as both a percentage and in absolute numbers. LinkReport

  3. Brent F says:

    I’m deeply skeptical of this guys logic, it seems like a fascile analysis not backed up by anything besides supposition.

    First off, big Canadian cities are famously non-white these days. This development has correlated with a national trend in wealth and power concentrating in said cities while ruralia has been left behind. Generally, the supposition that non-white correlates with a lack of prosperity simply does not hold to the Canadian experience of the past generation. Where it would hold would be more to do with Native Canadians, who are roughly equally impoverished and oppressed as American Blacks, but their experience is largely in remote and rural areas and have no similarity to the Blacks and the American Rust Belt.

    Secondly, the Rust Belt did happen in analogous regions in Canada to the industrial Mid-West, but as manufacturing was a less important part of the Canadian economy they were corrospondingly a more minor part of the economic geography. We’re pretty much talking about SW Ontario cities like Windsor and Hamilton. The impact of their industrial decline was also probably lessened by being right next to regions that did well in the new economy, like the national services economy centre in Toronto, or the high tech region in Kitchener-Waterloo.

    Thirdly, the idea that Canada limited immigration compared to the United States is flat out wrong. Canada has pretty much always had a higher proportion of its population as foreign born immigrants than the United States, even with the US’s tendency to get illegals from Central America. These immigrants have been pretty POC heavy as well ever since the 1960s era policy decision to end racial preference.

    Overall,I don’t think this guy thought about the theory he’s proposing much at all, or did any serious research on it. Seems like he came up with a provocative just-so-story and then rushed off to share it.Report

    • Trumwill in reply to Brent F says:


      Some observations, some leaning in favor of your response and some against:

      To the extent that the author is talking about *right now* he isn’t especially correct for the US or Canada. Our diverse cities are doing the best. But if we’re looking at 50 years ago (which I think he was, though he was less than clear on this point) then I think there may be something to it.

      By US standards, Canada was really quite white until recently. While today it is comparable to Arkansas or Connecticut, as recently as 1996 it was more comparable to current Iowa or Kansas, and most of the things being talked about predate 1996 by a lot.

      As you point out, though, Canada’s cities are quite diverse and they have been for a while. Toronto may be roughly 1/2 white instead of 1/3 white like some comparable US cities (Chicago or Houston), but it would still be among the more diverse cities in the US. Especially since, like those cities (and unlike, say, Miami) the non-whites aren’t coming overwhelmingly from a single place.

      That cuts both ways, though. I think racial anxiety probably tends to be higher when the non-white contingent of a city is concentrated among one group that can challenge white normalcy. The aggregate Asian-Canadian population does nearly rival that of whites in Toronto, but Asian-Canadian covers quite a bit of ground.

      On the other hand, the African-American population in midwestern cities wasn’t actually that large when white flight occurred. They were nowhere near rivalling the white population until the white population ran away. It really didn’t take many African-Americans for whites to start freaking out. But I don’t have the numbers of Canadian cities during this time period.

      Especially interesting might be to look at cities that aren’t Toronto or Vancouver, since the marquee cities in the US also did reasonably well. So your paragraph about Hamilton and Windsor was particular interesting. It was the second tier cities that have struggled and fallen and have been replaced by other second tier cities. Notably, diverse one! Which brings me to a final point…

      Though he makes it about white and non-white, I read someone making an interesting point recently that race relations in the US might be better defined as black and non-black than white and non-white. Which is to say that the African-Americans, and the descendants of slaves, occupy a very specific space in the US cultural fabric where any other sort of diversity, whether we’re talking about Los Angeles or Toronto, can’t really compare.

      I think you’re right that the theory is underestimating the very specific economics of the rust belt. I also (naturally) think there’s something to my theory about having fewer places to go resulting in people sticking around until the economy finds its footings. I don’t think he’s entirely wrong about race playing a significant part, though.Report

      • J_A in reply to Trumwill says:


        Though he makes it about white and non-white, I read someone making an interesting point recently that race relations in the US might be better defined as black and non-black than white and non-white. Which is to say that the African-Americans, and the descendants of slaves, occupy a very specific space in the US cultural fabric where any other sort of diversity, whether we’re talking about Los Angeles or Toronto, can’t really compare.


        To me, this is the correct lens to understand race in America. Every ethnic group (except African Americans (*)) is first seen as not white, then progresses to not African American, and then it becomes assimilated as part of the “white” culture.

        We all know about “No dogs or Irish”. We all know about Jewish people not accepted in universities or country clubs. We all know about Catholics not being real Americans. All that is gone except some in the very fringe.

        East Asians, South East Asians, and Hispanics became the next wave. The census created White Hispanic as a category (hey guys, they are just whites with funny names and funny accents!). Ninvada (Nikki) Hailey becomes South Carolina governor and a Far Right darling, Rafael Cruz and Marco Rubio are number two and four in the GOP presidential primaries, Elaine Lan Chao can be the spouse of a KY senator and rise on her own in several Republican Administrations. Heck, google Latinos and Aryans in prison and you will find out that white supremacist and Mexican gangs are allies (I won’t link at the articles, including one from The Atlantic, because they made me feel dirty, but trust me, the Aryan Brotherhood is deemed by Breibart readers as race traitors because they don’t hate Mexicans enough).

        Now we are getting to a point where African and Caribbean blacks are starting to be counted, too, as Not-African-American. The first step towards Melanine Heavy Whites.

        It seems that only descendants of slaves are being denied, and will continue to be denied, the seal of approval and to be counted as part of the “American “White and White-adjacent Ethnicity”.

        (*) Native Americans are probably a class of their own that also don’t benefit much of this narrative, but how much of that is their own self segregation I’m not sure.Report

      • PD Shaw in reply to Trumwill says:

        I think the phrase “black and other non-white populations” suggests anachronistic assumptions. It combines the very specific U.S. history regarding African slavery with late 20th century non-European immigration, often middle-class and/or educated.

        Cities like Toronto are “diverse,” in the sense that 46% of the population are first-generation immigrants, more than half of whom were born in Asia. Link There is really no history to be written there at all yet. Certainly nothing to compete with an African-American story that is older than the country.Report

      • LeeEsq in reply to Trumwill says:

        You really don’t need that much of a minority to cause the majority to freak out. You just need the right type of minority. Even a small trickle can cause a majority freak out in that case. During most of the 19th century, the British had an open door towards immigration but they sent out more emigrants than immigrants received. In the late 19th century, Jews began to arrive in the United Kingdom from Eastern Europe. The number of Jewish immigrants was a statistical beep, heavily concentrated in London, but it caused a political out roar that led to immigration restrictions.Report

  4. Kolohe says:

    Doesn’t Rufus F. here tell the tale of Rust Belt Canada, and recent gentrification of portions of the same?Report

    • Rufus F. in reply to Kolohe says:

      Yeah, sort of… I mean, when I first moved to Hamiilton about 12 years ago, I heard all these Canadians talking about it as a deindustrialized rust belt shell, and I had to laugh because it was actually in pretty good shape then. Let’s just say that Canadian ideas of “decline”are way different from those of an American like myself. And a lot of that could be due to social spending- the hospitals and clinics and schools are all half-decent in Hamilton and all of the houses are well-maintained.

      The big theme is steel production, which I’ve also heard ever since I moved here is in terminal decline. And I don’t know what to make of that because Stelco is now suddenly hiring 500 more workers, which makes me think I should see about putting some of my mutual funds there, especially as they’re less affected than most by the tariffs and I get the feeling they know something that I don’t. Auto production isn’t located far from here either and they’re hiring bigly as well.

      But, to be realistic, the majority of jobs here are lower-paying and, as a result, a high percentage of the population are still in the $30,000 income range, which is why it is a problem for a lot of us that we now have the fastest-rising average rent in Ontario (possibly Canada, if the CBC is to be believed).

      But, even there, who knows? It seems that the old houses on the market are being bought primarily by people with Toronto money who are middle-aged and looking for a house to retire in. The rest of us and all of the new university grads seem to be in apartments where the rents are skyrocketing partly because they’re not exactly building new ones and a bunch of the old ones were bought by an Ottawa property management company that, online anyway, hypes its “effort to drive the rental market” through “repositioning” and “marketing geared to the right tenant profile”. We’ll see how that goes.

      The new building is largely in condos, but I’m increasingly hearing about those being bought up by people looking to turn a profit as quickly as possible. Which makes sense because I’m not really sure it makes any sense to buy a $450,000 condo when you still get mortgages at the same rate or cheaper. I think the hope is that mortgages will increase dramatically making condos viable. Of course, something that isn’t being reported yet that I’m hearing about frequently are young people here realizing that our apartment rents are nearing the level of Toronto apartment rents, which makes it much more sensible to move there where the good jobs are.

      Sorry, this is a bit off-topic. Basically, the narrative here is that industry has evaporated and gentrification is implacable and I’m increasingly skeptical on both of those points. I could take you to the “gentrified downtown” of Hamilton and after we’d walked those three or four blocks, I could show you the rest of the city.Report

  5. Michael Cain says:

    And here I thought it was probably geography. Canada appears to lack any place that could fulfill the role the American South did: a region with a large population of workers, lacking a history of unions, equally close in transportation terms to the primary domestic markets, and rapidly growing. No country that plays the role of Mexico. The year-round seaports are inconveniently placed (the primary purpose of the Keystone XL pipeline is to provide the Canadian oil industry access to the Port of Houston — the rest is secondary). It seems to me that deciding to move domestic production elsewhere is a much tougher decision for a Canadian firm.Report