France’s Rift: Culture, Not Color…

by Chris Borgen

… this is the title of an op-ed in today’s International Herald Tribune by Spencer Boyer. Spencer and I were law school classmates and I appreciate his insights.

His essay returns to a topic that we have discussed here on Opinio Juris–the riots in an around Paris–but he is provocative in how he assesses prejudices on both sides of the Atlantic. Here are a couple of excerpts:

I had my first interaction with the French police on a December night in 1991. I had recently moved to Paris, and was strolling back to my tiny apartment in an exclusive neighborhood. I probably looked scruffy in my old army jacket and jeans. Suddenly two unmarked police cars pulled up. Four officers climbed out, asked where I was going, and demanded to see my “papers.” But when I began speaking French, one of the officers heard my accent. “Oh, you’re American? Please excuse us. Have a great evening.”

I was stunned. Americans had warned me that the French didn’t welcome people of color and constantly harassed Arabs and Africans. But I soon learned that being an African American in France is wonderful. I was generally treated better than I would have been back in the States…

Throughout the 20th century, legions of black American artists, writers, and jazz musicians escaped racism at home by fleeing to Europe. Paris, in particular, has been a second home for black intellectuals such as Richard Wright and James Baldwin.

I have inherited that legacy. Europeans associate me with the aspects of America they embrace, especially African American art and music, and the historical struggle for freedom and civil rights – exotic, but not threatening. It never seemed to matter that I personally was not artsy or hip. I was “ethnic,” but I wasn’t an immigrant with a culture and customs that were so different as to be feared. I was Christian, not Muslim. Different, but not too different.

And this, in my experience, is why prejudice in Europe is such a dramatically different beast from prejudice in the United States. In America, prejudice has long been a question of color. In Europe, it’s not about color, it’s about culture. France doesn’t have a race problem. It has a problem embracing the culture and customs of its immigrants and their children.

The whole essay is well worth reading.

2 Responses

  1. I think Mr. Boyer hits the nail on the head. Like him, I spent a significant portion of my life in both the US and France. I believe that the roots of the unease in France’s “banlieues” lie in the unresolved tension between France’s Christian European culture and the predominantly Muslim cultural identity of its racial minorities.

    Like Mr. Boyer states, the main issue is culture not race. The French cultural identity incorporates the thousand year old European struggle against Muslim invaders (the French especially remember the battle of Poitiers in which Charles Martel stopped the Moor invaders in 732. The battle marks the furthest incursion of Muslim forces in Western Europe). Much of European medieval and Renaissance culture is framed by the struggle against a Muslim “aggressor.” In all fairness, the Europeans were fairly belligerent as well, but by and large Europe remembers the aggression as one-sided.

    Despite France’s claims to have moved beyond such old rivalries, the tension remains, buried deep in the French collective psyche. It manifests itself through France’s stringent application of its secular laws (usually in a manner that predominantly affects its Muslim minorities), and through innumerable instances of cultural discrimination. French Muslims, especially young men, are less likely to be hired, receive promotions, and are almost openly discriminated against in industries with national security implications. Curiously enough, discrimination against Muslim women is dramatically lower, perhaps due to their greater integration in French mainstream culture. On the other hand, this may be due to other aspects of French culture…

  2. It’s an interesting idea, but wrong. A couple of points. In graduate school I asked an African colleague if he was treated better by whites in the US than the average African American. The answer was of course; his accent gave him an immediate status that “native” blacks were not accorded. So, then, does the US not have a race problem, but a cultural one, about black culture? I doubt most blacks would want to accept such an argument (with the exception of Thomas Sowell). What Boyer misses is that he is given a pass because he is not French

    A second example was one of an African American who gushed on about living in France, even as she recognized that the French blacks around her felt disenfranchised. And indeed, as her French improved and American accent weakened, she was treated more and more poorly. Her solution was not to recognize that her fantasy about France was just that, but to play up her accent to retain her token status.

    Race issues are a function of context–if you fall out of the package of racial stereotypes in a foreign setting, you’ll not experience the same treatment as the locals do. To generalize that experience as universal to the society is mistaken.

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