As a youth, I daydreamed about fleeing to Paris, as James Baldwin and Josephine Baker had done, to escape the harsh discrimination that limited Black opportunities here in America.
In recent years, I more often have met Black immigrants who’ve moved to the United States to escape the harsh discrimination that limited their opportunities in Paris. You want to be all that you can be? Try the U.S.A., mon frere, ma cherie.
After years of political struggle, hard-won civil rights victories and dozens of urban riots of our own, Americans learned the benefits of opening opportunities to women and minorities. The French, by contrast, interpret their cherished notions of “liberty, equality, fraternity” to mean that, once you’re in France, you’re French, as if that’s all the opportunity you need. Official government policy treats race and ethnicity as problems that will go away on their own if they simply are ignored, even though everyone knows that you will get a job interview a lot faster if your name is “Pierre” than you will if your name is “Abdul.”
Against that backdrop, we can view the collapse of civil order in France’s isolated enclaves of immigrant poverty as a repudiation of the seemingly color-blind policies that French politics have long embraced. That’s a hard-learned lesson for the French and a warning for us. Some Americans, often with the best intentions, argue that we’d all be better off if government never took race into account. The French, by contrast, could use a little more of the affirmative action that has helped kick-start racial change here. Otherwise, when government tries to be “color-blind” while human beings are not, minorities are left to their own defenses.
Over the past three decades, the job market in France has slowed, but relatives of earlier guest workers have kept on coming. An estimated 5 million to 7 million mostly Muslim immigrants from North Africa remain segregated from the republic’s social mainstream. Many face an oddly xenophobic version of “tolerance” in France that allows the expulsion of Muslim girls from public schools for wearing headscarves. Unlike America’s pockets of inner-city poverty, Paris and other French cities have herded their immigrants into public housing projects in their suburbs, where unemployment rates run as much as four times higher than the national average, which is in itself a steep 10 percent. Neither left nor right political parties have provided a channel for the grievances of the new immigrant generation. They are told they belong by a country that has failed to give them a sense of belonging.
As riots swept through the depressed outskirts of Paris and other French cities into a second week, President Jacques Chirac and his ministers did not seem to have a clue of how lumpy their national carpet has grown from all the problems they’ve swept under the rug. Their dumbfounded, finger-pointing response made the Bush administration’s stumbling response to Hurricane Katrina look like a model of efficiency.
Could such an uprising happen here? I think it is more useful and reassuring to look at all of the reasons why it has not happened here. At least, not yet. After all, America takes in millions of newcomers of all sorts of religions and ethnicities from around the world. Yet, as numerous experts have observed, Arabs and Muslims are just two of many groups that have integrated and assimilated much more comfortably and successfully into mainstream American life than their counterparts have in Europe.
“I love America more than any other country in this world,” said Baldwin after many years as an expatriate. “And, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”
Despite our own perennial disputes over immigration issues, new immigrants continue to be an economic engine here, helping to revive many economically depressed neighborhoods previously abandoned by earlier immigrant waves. I love the American Dream. It works. I only criticize our failures to make it work for everybody in America. At least, that makes us Americans luckier than our European cousins. They’ve built a common market but they have yet to come up with a common dream.
Clarence Page is a Pulitzer Prize–winning columnist for The Chicago Tribune. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Clarence Page