Why Is America Exporting Its Racial Politics?
We’ve been doing it since the Sixties, and it’s bad for the world.
Why is a public school in France renaming itself after Rosa Parks? Let us stipulate that Rosa Parks was an admirable lady. Why should the Grand Est regional council, when it consolidated the Lycée Jean-Baptiste Colbert and the Lycée Sophie Germain, choose to rename the combined school not after the 17th-century statesmen, not after the pioneering female mathematician, but after an activist from Alabama who had nothing to do with France?
The spread of George Floyd protests around the globe has a lot of people asking why the death of a man in Minneapolis should lead to statues being toppled in Europe. The answer is that American racial politics have colonized the rest of the planet. The answer to why that happened is partly because we deliberately exported it.
A New York Times article this month headlined “A Racial Awakening in France” explains that the U.S. embassy in Paris has made minority outreach part of its mission. Embassy programs have sent French anti-racism activists on exchange trips to the U.S. and funded training programs for them in “managing ethnic diversity.” One program promoted affirmative action, “a taboo concept in France,” the Times notes, since France famously does not even collect any government data based on race.
American outreach to French activists has indeed been energetic, with consequences for French politics. One beneficiary, Tara Dickman, was sent to Chicago to learn community organizing and returned to start a campaign against racial profiling, using decidedly American methods such as lawsuits against the government. “Within a year, police profiling went from a sort of topic that didn’t exist to a major political stake,” Dickman said. “Fourteen people went to court to sue the state, and then it became a major issue in the elections, there are three law proposals now … and this is really thanks to this trip.”
The broader goal of this outreach is to introduce into France the American approach to racial problems, our color-conscious multiculturalism as opposed to their colorblind universalism. One of the activists quoted by the Times, Rokhaya Diallo, has said that the problem with France is that “the country continues to view racism from a moral and individual standpoint. In doing so, it excludes the possibility of enacting broad policies that can tackle the structural problem of racism.”
Well, yes. That’s the point of being French. Viewing things from a “moral and individual standpoint” is at the heart of their version of the Enlightenment. In his stern televised address of June 14, President Emmanuel Macron condemned “separatists” for trying to use the current unrest to promote “communautarisme,” the breaking up of France into subgroups. However well that method might work in other places, it is fundamentally contrary to French traditions.
And who is to say which method works better? France’s record on race is pretty good. It maintains closer ties with its former African possessions than any other colonial power. It was electing black Africans to its national legislature at a time when America was still struggling to get lynching under control. Black American émigrés from James Baldwin to Thomas Chatterton Williams have found that they prefer France’s racial atmosphere. Every step France takes toward American-style racial activism erodes the distinctive French qualities that these men crossed an ocean for.
The Americanization of race politics around the world has been going on for so long that it has left almost no corner of the globe untouched. It is therefore difficult to judge how our approach stacks up against other traditions, since there are so few other traditions left intact.
Great Britain long resisted having explicitly racial laws. The Public Order Act of 1936, passed in response to Oswald Mosley’s fascist campaigns, prohibits incitement to violence or disorder. Parliament considered prohibiting anti-Semitic incitement specifically, but decided that British law should remain colorblind. A proposed ban on racial discrimination failed in 1943 for the same reason: it was considered wrong to extend legal protections to some groups but not others.
That all changed in the 1960s, and American influence was the reason why. Home Secretary Roy Jenkins, the driving force behind the Race Relations Act of 1968, referred repeatedly to American civil rights law as the gold standard that Britain needed to emulate. When other MPs proposed voluntary alternatives to an American approach based on litigation, the Labour Party’s hired experts sniffed that such approaches had “long been abandoned as ineffective by progressive governments in the United States.” The first anti-racist lobbying group in Britain, the Campaign Against Racial Discrimination (CARD), was inspired by Martin Luther King’s visit to London in 1964 on his way to accept the Nobel Prize, and modeled explicitly on American examples.
American cultural imperialism is so advanced that it no longer seems odd in 2020 for a London Times columnist to propose replacing slaveholders’ statues with statues of Frederick Douglass—as if Britain did not have enough heroes of her own to commemorate. The Wall Street Journal just published an article criticizing Ireland for being one of few EU states to lack hate crime legislation. Never mind that only 1.2 percent of Ireland’s population is African-descended. Why should there be a single country left on earth without laws extending special protections to victims with darker skin?
Back at home, America’s experiment in race-conscious law is beginning to be seen by some as a failure. If our racial regime has to get ever more baroque every year just to keep its balance, then maybe the way forward isn’t to keep adding accretion after accretion to our jurisprudence and our social taboos, but instead to go back to the bedrock rule we had before: equality before the law, with no privileged classes. This option wouldn’t sound so unthinkable if there were countries left in the world where America’s racial politics hadn’t intruded like an invasive plant species. Maybe that’s why we did it.