Thursday, November 17, 2005

Paradigm Shift

Every one in a while, you come across something that really changes the way you see and understand events in the world. These kind of moments may make some people feel uncomfortable, but I have always welcomed them and the new understanding that they have brought me. It seems like I've been experiencing a lot of these events lately. Perhaps I have the blogosphere to thank for this. Today's moment came from the Christian Science Monitor, via Andrew Sullivan. In this opinion piece, Bruce Bawer offers up an explanation for the unrest in France. The arguments he makes are mostly things that I have heard before, but he puts them together in a way that really changed my perception of European societies and race relations.

I had always had this notion that race relations were largely an American problem. Western European societies didn't seem to have these kinds of problems. I was familiar with all of the black entertainers who left segregated America to play to packed houses in European capitals, and assumed that Europeans must have a more enlightened attitude towards race relations than us. Over the years, my opinions about these things have become more nuanced, but I kept falling back to this baseline in the absence of any evidence to the contrary. The riots in France and the terrorist bombings in London have really opened up a new window into the state of racial and cultural relations in Europe.

As an American, I find the situation in Europe hard to understand. I've met Americans who hail from all over the world, many of whom have maintained various aspects of their native cultures. I've visited ethnic neighborhoods in many American cities where I couldn't read a lot of the signs or understand most of the people were saying, but I've never felt like I was in some strange land. Even if European countries decide to become more accepting of foreigners than they currently are, I don't see how any of them could be as accepting as America simply because our culture has been built on the idea of welcoming immigrants from around the world and turning them into Americans for so long.

The interesting and scary part of the situation in Europe is that a not insignificant portion of the Muslim population wishes to be segregated. I'm not sure how much of this is due to the fact that they know that not even their children will be considered full-fledged citizens of their adopted country and how much is due to their desire for religious purity. The riots in France look similar to the waves of urban riots that spread across this country during the late 1960s. There does not appear to be an accompanying non-violent civil rights movement within the Muslim communities of Europe. This surplus of rage and deficit of hope does not bode well for anyone.

The steps that European countries take to deal with this problem will shed a lot of light on the ongoing debate over the root causes of terrorism in the Muslim community. Will support dry up for radical clerics in Europe if young Muslim immigrants start to join the workforces and civil societies of their new homelands as some have suggested? Will it take a movement of reformers from within the Muslim community to redefine what it means to be a Muslim in Europe to put an end to the radicalization and self-segregation? Will European countries give up and close up their borders before either of these possibilities is allowed to run its course?


dusty said...

I'm going to assume that your former impression was shaped by, among other sources, Miles Davis' autobiography. Europe was just as racist in his time, but they can often reconcile that for high art. Think that every man in Miles' audience back then would have wanted their daughters to take the genius back home? Not a chance. Racism wasn't a Nazi patent. But the way Miles painted it, it did seem like a very different climate to what the US was experiencing at the same time.

Same probably could never be said for Europe's acceptance of other entertainers. One of the biggest stories in sports to come out of W. Europe this year has been fan taunting of black soccer players. Spanish Primera Liga team Getafe was recently fined for their monkey chanting directed at Barça striker Samuel Eto'o, who is African. This is just one incident among many, and some have publicly come out to defend Getafe and others claiming that derisive and racist chanting is just part of the culture (just like some Mexican officials were saying about their recent set of Black Sambo stamps. Vincente Fox apparently had the set discontinued). From my time in Europe, I can say that it's certainly not the norm, but if you bring up the topic (preferably not in English), it won't be hard to find someone to espouse views that would pass for extremely racist in the US (from personal experience).

But about France. If your local merchant can keep it on the shelves now, rent La Haine (Hate). It's a French film, c. 1995 that won the César for Best Picture (French equiv. of the Oscar) and Best Director at Cannes. It follows a Black, a Jew, and an Arab around the ghettos in the Paris suburbs, getting harassed by gendarmes, doing anything to make a franc since they can't get proper jobs, etc, etc. It's a good movie, too, and you might recognize some of the stars who have since made English-language movies. I remember it being quite the eye-opener for me, too.

dhodge said...

I think that my impression was shaped by the reception that a lot of jazz musicians received in Europe. In retrospect, I don't know if racism is the only explanation for the relative unpopularity of jazz in the US. White America seems pretty comfortable with black music these days, as evidenced by good old boys blasting hip hop in their pickups, yet there doesn't seem to be a run on jazz records.

Thanks for the film tip. I think Michelle saw this in a French class at Matthieu Kassovitz (the directrix) appeared in Amelie, in case you weren't aware.