WWII and race in the Post-Nazi era

Part VI of a series on the history of race in Canada and the US.

After the end of World War II, there was a significant shift in race-thinking. As the horrors of the holocaust came into popular awareness, it became less acceptable to talk about the differences between races in general, and white-supremacy in particular (Omi, 2001). This was exemplified in the 1950, 1951, 1964 and 1967 UNESCO Statements on Race (Hiernaux & Banton, 1969 – pdf), which take an increasingly strong stance against any scientific basis for race, and criticize the use of biological understandings of race to justify racial discrimination.

The end of the Second World War also initiated significant changes in American and Canadian culture with the rise of the consumer society. Many feared a massive post-war depression, as had followed WWI. This provoked a consensus across business and political party lines that endorsed mass consumption as a way to transition into a peacetime economy. In this context, consumption was not only about personal comfort, it was a civic duty (Cohen, 2003).

The American GI Bill of Rights (1944) is an illustrative example of the ways that racialization became more covert after the Second World War, but continued to shape social structures, institutions and the distribution of resources. The GI Bill of Rights was one of many American government measures to promote purchasing power and it is now understood as an important mechanism that enabled social mobility for soldiers returning from war. While this bill was a significant contributor to the prosperity of many in the decades after the war, many studies have overwhelmingly indicated that “the better off a GI was going into the war, the better off VA benefits made him after it” (Cohen, 2003, p. 156). Part of this difference is accounted for by the personal entitlement and social capital of middle and upper class men, but a large part of the difference came from the structures and distribution of benefits of the GI Bill itself. For example, while the GI Bill would cover the high tuition of private universities, it was very difficult to receive support for the costs of apprenticeships, skills education or on-the-job training, all forms of education associated with working class employment.

In Canada, talk about race, and particularly about whiteness, also declined during the post-WWII time period. It was replaced with euphemistic terms like culture and ethnicity, which continued to mark some as different from unmarked (implicitly white) Canadians, as Canada started to regulate culture and assimilation through the Nationalities, Citizenship and Multiculturalism branches of the government (Day, 2000). This strategy has meant that difference is managed through policies of inclusion. However, the cultural differences that are included are only the observable aspects. James (2008) argues that Canada’s multiculturalism policies are based on a ‘surface’ definition of culture, which negates the power differences that exist between perceived groups (especially between the dominant and ‘minority’ groups), and the ways that minority groups are expected to conform to the deeper aspects of white European Canadian culture (i.e. the organization of families, economics and politics). This is the double effect of multiculturalism in Canada: the explicit policy is one of multiculturalism and affirmation of diversity, while the implicit values reaffirm whiteness as the central or normal experience (Mackey, 2002).

The civil rights and feminist movements of the 1960s, 70s and 80s in the USA and Canada led to many gains in equality, particularly in the legal domain. Formal and explicit racism largely ended, and race-equalizing policies such as affirmative action and hiring equity were adopted to try to address the historical inequities. However, in the 1980s and 1990s, affirmative action provoked a growing backlash among middle-class (particularly male) whites (Giroux, 1997). It is in the context of this backlash that there is an increasingly colourblind or race neutral approach has been expressed, in the media, in pop-culture, in the USA courts, and by government leaders and policy makers. Chapter 4 explores how these ideas are then taken up and expressed by commenters on a blog post about diversity.

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