Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Black and White and Shades of Gray

So my last couple of posts have been a bit on the fluffy side. Today's is a lot more serious, something I've been chewing on since before the presidential election and now current events have propelled the discussion even further along. The political pundits worldwide have been musing on the significance of Obama's win and specifically what does it mean for how Americans specifically (and Western nations in general) think about and deal with the thorny issue of race. Is this truly the end of an era, the final step of business left unfinished since the Civil War? On the one hand, the image captured on TV of Jesse Jackson with tears running down his face as he listened to Obama's acceptance speech signals that yes, this really was a big deal. On the other hand, it's going to take a lot more than having a black president to undo ingrained racist attitudes and practices that have led to disparities in education, employment, and opportunity for so many people of color.

Equality is a powerful word in both French and American societies, a value we both hold strongly. Yet as an American in Paris, I'm learning that the discussion of race plays out very differently here. As I understand it, the French value is that everyone should be treated the same. Integration into French society is the goal. Becoming a citizen requires command of the French language, for example. And with this focus on equality, France has rejected affirmative action and other policies that would rectify disparities. The country doesn't even collect data on race in its census.

Of course the reality is that the French haven't resolved what should be done about the considerable inequality that exists among the races. The riots in Paris's northern suburbs last year and the year before are just one expression of the simmering resentment.

There were some very interesting polling data in the French press before the election. With over 80 percent of the French hoping for an Obama victory, the pollsters asked people if they, personally, would one day vote in a presidential election for a black candidate, a candidate of Asian origin, or a candidate whose background was North African. Fully 80 percent said yes that they would vote for a black candidate but the numbers were smaller for other minorities (72 percent for Asian and 58 percent for North African). On the issue of whether they thought such candidates had a chance of winning, the numbers were still smaller. (If you want to look at the article I'm referencing, it ran in Le Journal du Dimanche on Sunday, November 2nd.)

Fast forward a week. This past Sunday, Le Journal du Dimanche published a manifesto on bringing about equality among the races in France. Authored by Yazid Sabeg, a successful industrialist and son of Algerian immigrants, and inspired by the American elections, the title of the manifesto is "Oui, nous pouvons!" (Yes, we can!) It calls for specific actions to make the promise of equality real, including term limits as means of increasing representation of minorities in elected office and other public policies to combat the social consequences of discrimination. Signatories of the manifesto include political figures on the left and right; Carla Bruni-Sarkozy has also added her support for the effort.

It's too early to tell where this will go. It's surprising enough that French attitudes about the U.S. have sufficiently reversed to now make us a model for their consideration. Who could have imagined that just a few short months ago? I'm not naive enough to think that the U.S. has moved onto being a postracial society. But while we've got a lot of work to do in our own house, it's good to know that we're inspiring others to roll up their sleeves and get to work too.


Dan said...

I am not French so I don't know anything about this. The question that occurs to me is why aren't minorities more common among professional and government ranks if France is committed to equality? I've read that there is much discrimination in hiring. Is that true? If it is, then it seems France could live up to its ideals by enforcing equality in hiring. That way they would not have to resort to affirmative action.

Starman said...

France may embrace the ideology of equality, but they most likely will never embrace the actuality.

Electing a black President will not end racial conflict in the US. As the election was taking place, there were those who threatened Obama's life because he is black. There were (and are) those who would like nothing better than to know that someone assassinated him. I know people who have suggested that with not the slightest tinge of guilt. I have no doubt that, without vigorous safeguards, he will probably not see the end of 2009.

Anne said...

Dan: I don't know enough about French law to answer your question. Incidentally, this issue was covered in today's International Herald Tribune at

Starman: Let's just hope that your worst fears will never come to pass.

John said...

Whether they supported Obama or not, for all black folks this election is a tremendous step forward and point of pride that many believed they would never see in their lifetime.

And thank you for saying "black" not "African American." The latter may be politically correct, but I work among many folks of color and I've never heard the expression "African-American" used to describe themselves or their peers. They still say "black."

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