The Toronto Raptors reaching the NBA Finals more than two decades after becoming an expansion team in the league is one of the most feel-good sports stories of 2019 so far. Toronto is one of the best basketball cities the NBA has and the thousands of fans who swarmed downtown to celebrate the Game 6 win over the Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference Finals (with no police incidents, may I add) were a testament to that love for the sport. We saw Drake’s impassioned post-game presser, Kyle Lowry taking the trophy through the crowd outside the arena and unlikely hero Fred VanVleet unable to drive due to the ecstatic fans surrounding his car.
In the wake of the celebrations, we’ve been inundated with stories of how great a city Toronto is for the NBA and beyond. One such story, a Twitter thread from journalist Muhammad Lila, got a lot of traction:
The story revolves around Nav Bhatia, an immigrant who moved to Toronto in the 80s. As the thread explains, Bhati could not get a job as an engineer because of racism, as no one wanted to hire a brown man with a turban to be an engineer. So Bhatia had to sell used cars. He was so good at selling used cars that he was able to afford season tickets to the Raptors for the franchise’s whole run since 1995, and he even buys tickets for youngsters in the area. It really is a positive story that shows how hard Bhati worked and how much he’s given back while loving a sports team so dearly.
However, the way the story is framed — to paint Toronto as more racially progressive city than, say, Milwaukee, as Lila did in his Twitter thread (“in any other city looking at you, MIL, a guy like Nav might stand out. But not in Toronto. We’re a place where immigration works.”) — is disingenuous and falls into the same type of delusions that allow racism to persevere unchallenged.
The fact is, Bhati’s story isn’t about Toronto’s progressiveness. It’s a story about how one man was able to overcome xenophobia and racism to make a life for himself. After all, the only reason he sold used cars in the first place was that prejudice prevented him from being an engineer. Lila’s commentary on Bhati’s story — the notion that his city is more inclusive or unified than any other — is a trap far too many people fall into. There’s not much of a point in being boisterous about one place’s diversity if that place is still failing to reach total inclusivity and equality. What we’re doing at that point is just ranking the best losers in the fight for true equality instead of actually trying to achieve it.
Being unified across racial lines for sport is a tale as old as time. People from different backgrounds always congregate around sports arenas and bars, hugging and cheering together in between the times they separate and hate one another. Sure, the city of Toronto came together in harmony for the Raptors but Black Torontonians are victims of 85 percent of race-based hate crimes; students of African descent have doubled the dropout rate of white students; and Black women are among the fastest growing incarcerated group. I could go on. Toronto is not some racial utopia because such a place doesn’t exist. And it damn sure doesn’t exist in North America.
I’m not writing this to single out Toronto. I remember in college, for instance, a white girl from San Francisco telling me that California didn’t have racism, asking how I could live in the south. But growing up I only knew Cali for Rodney King, riots, Disneyland and 2Pac. The first two are as violently anti-Black as anything I’d ever witnessed in the south. I’ve had New Yorkers say the same as if the NYPD isn’t one of the most anti-Black task forces in America. And so on. There is no beacon of acceptance and equality in America because no place in America is without racism and xenophobia.
I’ve spent my whole life hearing people compare their regions of the country to the south and championing their environments for its progressiveness while a quick flip through local newspapers show the dire impacts intolerance has on its residents. Whether that be Los Angeles, Oakland, Toronto or Birmingham. If the Toronto Raptors win the NBA championship, we’ll see Toronto streets again flooded with diehard fans of all colors and creeds. The pictures will make us smile. They’ll instill hope of what is possible beyond sport. However, these pictures won’t represent anything beyond a sports celebration. That energy spent patting ourselves on the back for perceived progressivism needs to go to actually guaranteeing equality, safety and understanding for people of all backgrounds. Then we can start celebrating.
David Dennis, Jr. is a writer and adjunct professor of Journalism at Morehouse College. David’s writing has appeared in The Guardian, The Smoking Section, Uproxx, Playboy, The Atlantic, Complex.com and wherever people argue about things on the internet.