Thursday, May 12, 2005

The Frenchman Who Lectured Me About America's Race Problems

Many years ago, after first arriving in France, I was discussing race matters with a Frenchman in his 50s, who had challenged the United States on its "appalling" race relations.

While giving in on a number of issues, I was not prepared to let every accusation go by without putting them into a modicum of perspective.

When the man charged America had had slavery, I said that that's not quite true; the South had slavery, while most Northern states had given up their systems before the French Revolution even took place, meaning more than half the country was slaveless. Besides, didn't France and the European powers introduce slavery to all their colonies in America (including what would become the future United States) and Africa — if it didn't exist there already (black masters with black slaves)?

When he said that at least Europeans hadn't introduced it on the European continent proper, I wondered skeptically about the supposed benefits of the matter, and, putting aside the non-racial type of slavery (white masters with white slaves) that had existed from time immemorial, I added the question, wasn't their primary reason for not doing so related to the absence of an appropriate climate (for the cultivation of cotton, say), rather than the presence of superior morals?

When he said that the outcome of the Civil War had done little to nothing for the black man, I replied (quoting from James McPherson) that after 1865, the black man could no longer be sold, and his family broken up. If that is not sign of progress, what is?

When he said that blacks had made no advances since that period, I replied that the chairman of the chief of staff has been black, the ambassador to the United Nations has been black, numerous movie stars have been (or are) black, the governor of the state sheltering the former capital of the Confederacy has been black, and the mayors of Atlanta, Saint Louis, Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Washington, and San Francisco have been (or are) black (and since our conversation, two blacks have become secretary of state).

As for his saying that African-Americans were doing poorly economically, I replied that four out of six blacks are in the middle class, and asked how well had citizens of France's former African colonies fared, either during colonization or following its end?

This went on for a while in a similar fashion until he said that there were no race riots in France the way there had been in cities like Los Angeles (twice — in the 1960s and the 1990s). That may be true, I said (quoique…), but you must remember that minorities form a much greater percentage of the population in America than here in Europe. (The point being, of course, not to excuse racist attacks, but to providing a context for understanding them.)

That was when the man smiled and, with a wink, said in a mischievious voice:

Nous, on a été plus malins. On n'en a pas laissé autant entrer.
Translation: "We Frenchmen acted in a smarter way than you Americans. We didn't let as many darker-skinned people enter our country."

This took me aback. In fact, I have a hard time explaining how much this shocked me. I don't know if my mouth was left wide open and if I actually blinked several times in succession, as from a strong blow, but that's certainly how I felt.

  • First of all, the comment invalidated all of the man's high-falutin' anti-racist language; before this, I had taken for granted that all anti-racism activists (of whatever nationality) were an honestly dedicated bunch, and that to a meaningful struggle
  • Second, the comment showed a vision of communities, or groups, where everybody is like-minded (or like-simple-minded) and the importance of the individual is negated as it is taken as a given that every member shares the same thoughts and goals
  • Third, the comment inherently suggested — and not in a critical sense, but in a matter-of-fact way — that darker-skinned people are not to be considered a part (integral or otherwise) of those communities, either that forming the United States or that of any European country, let alone second-class citizens
  • Fourth, the comment showed deep ignorance of, if not willful indifference to, historical facts and actual historical possibilities (think Abraham Lincoln's "I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me")
But above all, what the comment showed me was the futility of debates. What the Frenchman was demonstrating was not curiosity and learning and exchanging ideas. The goal of his pontificating was, consciously or otherwise, to find a way — any way — to show what to him was the obvious — that he and his kind were superior to Americans and American society. If he could not find a way to be superior in the anti-racist category, he would have to show that he and his kind were superior in another — say, intelligence. So, when the possibility came up, he jumped on it.

Debating, in the land of Descartes (and in many other places, I have since found), is not to share thoughts and ideas. It is all about proving one's superiority, whether in the case of anti-racism, intelligence, humanism, rationality, lucidité, generosity, tolerance, honesty, or eternal wisdom — and proving this to one's self, and to one's kind, as much as to any others.

In retrospect, this conversation, which took place in the 1990s, is one of the seminal events in the evolution (if that is the correct word) of my thinking. Before, I had imagined that knowledge of the facts would be instrumental in carrying a debate forwards and bringing about an end, or at least some temperance, to anti-Americanism. Now, I saw that the facts hardly mattered. All that mattered was that, in the final analysis, the speaker and his type of society should come out on top.

I liken this to the many times conversations (if they can be called that) have centered on my putting things into perspective, or trying to, because often I would be interrupted by my interlocutors making constant jumps from one subject to the next — the Cold War, the death penalty, Vietnam, the Indians, capitalism, Chile, slavery, etc, etc, etc — usually before I had finished speaking, and with faces reflecting extreme anger, disgust, mockery, or glee.

FYI, the conversation with the man in his 50s was one among many which eventually led me to come up with the principles of the Americans Anonymous organization.

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