Sunday, November 06, 2005

Rioting in France

Just last year, I was at a conference in Paris on American affirmative action policy. I was a bit surprised to find that the room of mostly left-wing academics was quite mixed on whether affirmative action should exist in the U.S. Most of those opposed to the policy believed that it only served to reinforce racial distinctions instead of confronting the root of continuing inequality, economics. But when it came to how to handle inequality in French society, these academics were emphatic and unanimous: France does not have a race problem. There is inequality, yes, but it is race-neutral and nothing similar, both historically and in the present context, to America. I was told over and over that Americans are overly color-conscious; not the French who are more sophisticated and color-blind.

Or at least white French academics don't think in terms of race. It is pretty clear that not everyone in France is so color-blind, at least those who are most directly impacted by race specific policies and injustices. It didn't take a riot to see that this was the case. While I don't know a lot about French race politics, wandering the streets in Paris was enough to see that at least some of the racial dynamics that exist in America were equally apparent there--particularly an extensive racial divide between those who work high paying and low paying jobs as well as the residential segregation that we continue to see here. Not to mention the constant use of stereotypes when white French people discuss immigrants to their country.

A number of people in the U.S. have begun in recent years to study French race matters in comparison with other nations. Erik Bleich, for instance, argues in Race Politics in Britain and France that the French have long chosen to handle race by ignoring it in politics and policy-making. In this sense, he says, it goes against the Anglo-Saxon model of developing civil rights policies that specify on the basis of race. In the U.S., we've had a mixed history in this regard. Unlike France, we've passed a number of laws designed to specifically address racial discrimination, affirmative action being one of them. But similar to France, there is a strong tendency for Americans to believe that race is best addressed through completely color-blind policy measures. Race, because it is deemed artificial and antithetical to liberal individualism, is viewed suspiciously. The Supreme Court, in particular, has scrutinized any effort by policy-makers to use race, even when it is intended to remedy as opposed to reinforce inequality. In Shaw v. Reno, for instance, Justice O'Connor criticized the use of race-specific gerrymandering designed to provide greater representation to African American and Latino voters because she said that "It reinforces the perception that members of the same racial group -- regardless of their age, education, economic status, or the community in which they live -- think alike, share the same political interests, and will prefer the same candidates at the polls. We have rejected such perceptions elsewhere as impermissible racial stereotypes."

A positive way to view O'Connor's statement is that she's naive. A negative way is to say she doesn't get out much. Racial distinctions are not "reinforced" by civil rights policies attempting to remedy inequality. They are already rigidly created from a long history and continuing every day reality of inequality and difference. This isn't to say that individualism is simply a sham (just ask 'Fitty Cent'); it is to say that no matter how "constructed" race is, it has a very concrete reality in America and in France. What's going on in France and what happened here in Louisiana are just the most recent and dramatic examples that racial minorities do not see their worlds as color-blind as each nation's majorities wish them to be. One needn't go too far on a limb to take the next step--that ignoring racial inequality by pretending it doesn't exist, the way the French and the Americans too often try to do, isn't ameliorating injustice and inequality, but instead just allows people to avoid the issue until it is forced upon them.

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