"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Race And The Perils Of Ignoring It–Vive La France!

I traveled to Burundi in the early 80s and was warned not to say ‘Hutu’ or ‘Tutsi’. The ethnic tensions in the country were high, and nothing should be said that could be wrongly interpreted.  The issue of ethnicity was to be deliberately ignored and the country declared officially and assumed to be by fiat one, united, and integral whole.  Of course nothing could have been farther from the truth, for not many years later a brutal civil war broke out and lasted for twelve years.  The Hutu-Tutsi rivalry dated at least back to colonial times when the Tutsis were favored by the Belgians and certainly well before.

I worked in Rwanda over the period of a year in 1994, ten years after the Genocide, and was again warned not to mention Hutus or Tutsis.  Although the war was long over, ethnic tensions still remained, and any possibility of inflaming quieted passions or inadvertently providing a casus belli was to be avoided.  It took me the entire year to be able to get my colleague and friend to talk in anything but ethnically neutral terms.

I could understand both the Burundian and Rwandan cases.  The wars had been savage and brutal; and Rwanda was at the time of my visit still fighting Hutu militias who had fled Rwanda for Eastern Congo during the war and who had vowed to return.  Rwandan military action in the Congo has increased and has contributed to the destabilization of this resource-rich region.  Not mentioning – and therefore bringing up and revisiting – a horrific period of the past seemed reasonable.

Of course the ethnic conflict did not go away, and despite the truly remarkable process of reconciliation and Truth Commissions in which Hutus admitted their horrific crimes to members of the very communities whose families they had slaughtered – ethnic resentment has persisted.  How could it not?  It is not surprising that ten or even twenty years is hardly enough time to erase the memories of a genocide in which nearly one million people lost their lives.

Some countries, like Serbia, still remember wars and defeats at the hands of enemies that happened centuries ago.  The infamous battle of Kosovo Polje where the Serbs were defeated by the Ottoman Turks and lost their administrative capital, was raised as a herald in the 90s during the period of the Balkan wars.

Europe until recently was made up of homogeneous countries with relatively small minorities. France had its share of Algerian and West African immigrants and Germany its Turkish ‘guest workers’, and England a sizeable South Asian contingent; but Italy, France, Germany, the Netherlands and Scandinavia were largely native born .  In the last twenty-five years, however, foreign immigration has increased throughout Europe and there are few countries who have not had to confront the systemic changes provoked by racially, ethnically, and religiously different minorities.  Not only were Muslim immigrants different, but the more radical Islam espoused by them challenged liberal European values to the core. The treatment of women and their consignment to a lower status, the curtailing of free speech, and the outspoken and often militant demand for religious identity shocked and upset majority populations. They did not know what to do.

Some countries, like England, was more tolerant and accepting of minorities.  Indians, Bangladeshis, Pakistanis, and West Indians were allowed to live as they wished – either assimilated within or apart from the British mainstream.  Others, like France, marginalized their Algerian and West African populations.  While proclaiming loudly that there is not nor never could be racism in France where all people are free, equal, and joined in brotherhood (Liberté, égalité, fraternité) the French let the suburbs fester.

The French often cite their colonial history as an example of their liberal views on race.  They consorted, socialized, and fraternized with the natives far more than the stand-offish British, they say; and while this may be true (Victorian class structure was notorious), the attitude of racial superiority of the French was more obvious and far more cynical

Colonial France tried, with limited success, to clothe its colonial interests in a liberal and progressive garb.  While Faidherbe [Governor of French West Africa 1860s] strengthened French possessions in Senegal from one to four communes, their privileges were denied to the vast population of Africans that eventually came under French control.

Only the African citizens of the French communes in Senegal were granted the right to elect deputies to the National Assembly in France. Prior to 1914, the African deputies to Parliament had come from a small class of elite, mainly people of European descent or of mixed race. (What-When-How.com)

This policy of creating ‘honorary Frenchmen’ was part of France’s mission civilisatrice designed to show that with exposure to French culture and mores even African savages could be made to see the light.

The French attitude towards race and culture, then, is very complex.  On the one hand, there are the unforgettable precepts of the French Revolution.  On the other there is the colonial tradition which applied them unevenly and prejudiciously to their colonies.  They could forget the mass of people under the rule and dismiss them as savages if they could encourage and promote those whom they considered of a higher order.  The attitude in modern France is no different.  Thousands of African immigrants can be allowed to fester in the northern suburbs as long as the door to those few who meet European French standards remains open.

When the suburbs erupted nearly ten years ago, the French government went through its litany of mea culpas and owned up to some dereliction of duty and responsibility, but at the same time hardened its line on the idea of we-are-all-one-people cultural homogeneity.  Headscarves are now banned in schools and many other public institutions, and edicts clearly aimed at the increasingly militant Muslim minority (the largest in Europe) are increasing.  This has only incensed an already restive Muslim community.  It is a classically French intellectual approach to problems – if we say you are equal, you are equal.

All of Europe is grappling with conflict between liberalism and militancy.  The Dutch and the Danes, famously among the more tolerant populaces in Europe, are now passing more and more restrictive laws aimed at Muslim immigrants.  They have not yet sorted out militant, radical Islam from Islam as a religion, and have tossed all into the same basket. Such indiscriminate polices have radicalized even the most moderate Muslims.

The issue of ethnicity in America has many parallels with those in Europe. The anti-immigration fervor has as much to do with the perceived invasion of people who are culturally different as it does with jobs. Americans, like Europeans, despite our long history of productive waves of immigration, have grown more intolerant.  Mexicans represent a threat to ‘Our Way of Life’.  Still, we easily get over it and the prejudice against Latinos, similar to that that expressed towards Irish, Italians, Slavs, and Jews 100 years ago will eventually disappear.  All of us who live in major metropolitan areas live happily in a multi-ethnic environment which we feel is enriched and not threatened.

Race is a different subject altogether, and as is noted in an article by Alana Lentin and Valerie Amiraux in The Guardian (2.12.13) on Francois Hollande’s push to eliminate the word ‘race’ from the French Constitution, race in America never seems to go away; but far from trying to do as Rwanda, Burundi, and France have done, we confront and deal with the problem directly.

Eliminating race as a word, a concept, and a social phenomenon would be wrong, the authors say. An important point of reference, they say, is the Holocaust – the most horrific expression of racism that Europe has ever seen. Erasing the concept of race, therefore, would be to erase the memory of eight million Jews who were exterminated only because of their race:

Amending the French constitution, rather than being an anti-racist stance, contributes to concealing the centrality of race to the past and present of modern Europe.  Tying race to a single inexorable historical event [the Holocaust], seen as completely at odds with what are portrayed as being Europe's democratic traditions, disconnects it from colonialism, which is given a more positive spin as a civilizing rather than a murderous mission. The Holocaust may well be the worst example of racism. However, claiming a special place for race by associating it uniquely with a single historical event has the effect of making it literally unmentionable in other contexts.

I am not sure that this Holocaust-focused argument is really as central as the authors suggest.  As mentioned above, French racism was abundantly obvious during its colonial period long before Hitler; and French intolerance today is more linked to classic French contradictions - intellectualizing race (égalité,etc.) and idealizing culture (‘honorary Frenchmen’) on the one hand; and dismissing Africans as inferior on the other.

In any case, avoiding the issue of race by submerging or ignoring it will not make it go away.  It must be noted, however, that American endless talk about race won’t make the issue go away either. In fact, talking about race within the context of Politically Correct ‘diversity’ has made it worse.  ‘Progressives’ who celebrate racial distinctions indiscriminately – i.e. all black expressions of culture are valid, positive, and socially responsible (The Ghetto Is Good) – have gone a long way to perpetuate stereotypes, encourage a culture of dependency, and have turned the focus away from necessary rehabilitation of dysfunctional communities.

In many cases talk about race has replaced performance.  Despite decades of social programs to engineer racial equality (e.g. affirmative action), the harsh realities of the free market cannot be ignored.  Race will cease to exist as a concept when there is greater economic equality, and that will occur when minority populations on their own figure out – like their immigrant predecessors – how to adapt, reform, and modify their behavior to reach majority goals.  Few people will notice the color of a neighbor’s skin when he is a lawyer, doctor, or college professor like they are.

I spend a lot of time of the year in the Deep South and there seems to be less talk about race than in my liberal enclaves in the North.  However, racial attitudes there are often hardened and in many ways unchanged from the past.  It has only been fifty years or so from the second Civil Rights Act of 1965 when segregation was finally officially dismantled – not enough time to expunge longstanding prejudicial views about race.  When race is talked about, it is yelled about behind closed doors, and has not gone away.  As black majorities exercise their political rights and white supremacy fades farther and farther into the past, resentment increases and racism redoubles.

In the North, there is a self-righteous sanctimony about having overcome race; but although we think we ignore it, we don’t.  In Washington, DC I cannot ignore the almost total apartheid-like segregation of neighborhoods and schools.  I cannot ignore the staggering difference in crime rates, incarceration, drug use, and dysfunctional families. I am aware of race whenever I am in any City department filled with political appointees; and when I observe the black-white demographics of North-South and East-West busses.

The problem in America is that although we talk about race, we do so only in political terms.  We do not confront the issue directly, honestly, and objectively.  There is something wrong in discussing the pathology of social dysfunction in black (as opposed to ‘inner city’, ‘marginalized’, or ‘disadvantaged’) communities.  Race must be dismissed as a factor in poor test scores and educational performance, the lack of adherence to majority norms and standards, the high rates of crime and incivility. It is like dealing with terrorism without mentioning Islam.  It is ignoring a key variable in social dynamics. Gradually change is coming.  Most ‘progressives’ have been forced to admit that Asian students, regardless of the income, social status, or occupation of their parents, do better than anyone else in school.  Race – or race/ethnicity does seem to matter after all.

So, despite our posturing, politics, and self-righteousness, we Americans are facing the persistent issue of race better than our European allies.  It is a dirty, nasty, business; but it is better to get down and deal than to ignore and hope.

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